Hey, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?

Adam Lambert is Brian May’s chosen one to front Queen — so is the American ready to be Freddie full-time?

Lisa Verrico

The Sunday Times
Published: 18 December 2011

Caption: One vision: Brian May and Adam Lambert conquer the stage (Leon Neal)

Filling Freddie Mercury’s shoes must rate as rock’s most daunting situation vacant. Fronting a performance by Queen, to be seen by a TV and internet audience of millions, with only one week’s notice is certainly a challenge few established singers would be willing to accept. Tarnish their memories of Mercury and Queen’s fans will never forgive you; try to outdo the flamboyant front man and you’ll fail.

At the European Music Awards in Belfast last month, the former American Idol contestant Adam Lambert not only took up the challenge, but pulled off a performance so perfect, plans are already afoot for further shows. Both Roger Taylor and Brian May have regularly spoken of their love of Lambert. Taylor recently described him as a phenomenal performer with an unequalled range. May, meanwhile, has been comparing the Californian to Mercury since the 2009 American Idol final, when Queen backed Lambert singing We Are the Champions in a voice that summoned the spectre of Freddie.

“After Idol, we discussed performing together again,” says Lambert, 30 next month, who came second in the talent contest and went on to sell more than 1m copies of his debut album, For Your Entertainment. “Every time I saw Brian, the same conversation came up. A week before the EMAs, he called to say that Queen were getting an award, and would I sing with them? Was I scared? Hell, yeah. Freddie’s are f***in’ big shoes.”

Perversely, shoes proved to be the least of Lambert’s worries. For the performance, he opted for a worn-in pair of wedge-heeled boots by Rick Owens. Combined with his 6ft 1in frame and hair in a high quiff, he towered over May when the pair strode down a walkway and posed back to back. But it wasn’t Lambert’s shoes that stole the show. Or his black leather off-duty-Batman outfit. Or, thank heavens, any attempts to ape Mercury’s moves. From the start of the opening song, The Show Must Go On, Lambert had the arena audience on its feet because of his confidence and a voice that seemed to stun even May. He couldn’t stop grinning, as though relieved that a 20-year search for a suitable successor to Freddie had finally ended.

Lambert shares not only Mercury’s vast vocal range, but a theatrical delivery that comes partly from growing up listening to Queen — he sang Bohemian Rhapsody for his Idol audition — and partly from a decade spent starring in musicals.

That Lambert outshone even Lady Gaga and her pricey, prop-stuffed set at the EMAs was particularly impressive considering most of the crowd had no idea who he was. This side of the Atlantic, Lambert has yet to have a hit, and his appearance was unannounced on the night. As the set closed with a mass, arms-aloft clap-a-long to We Will Rock You, you could hear astonished voices asking who he was.

The Queen connection should help Lambert to break Britain with his second album, Trespassing, due out in March, but it may also prove problematic. Queen are reportedly keen to tour soon with the singer, and, should he accept, Lambert would make millions. First, he insists, he will see how Trespassing fares.

“Brian and Roger understand that I have my music and my own career to progress, and they are supportive of that,” Lambert says diplomatically. “But we will definitely perform together again. Standing in for Freddie feels natural for me. I adore Queen’s music and, as both a showman and a singer, Freddie is one of my idols. I also connect with him, being gay. It’s not an easy thing in mainstream music to be a gay man. In Europe nobody cares, but in the States it’s still a big deal. I’ve had to jump a lot of hurdles and take a lot of hate at home. I can’t imagine what it felt like for Freddie as the front man of the world’s biggest rock band, back in the 1970s, worried how people would treat him if they found out.”

It is fair to say Lambert’s career has suffered. When he came out during American Idol, there was outrage. His confession almost certainly lost him the title — watch the performance with Queen in the final and see him demolish the winner, a cute but boyband-bland chap called Kris Allen. When Lambert kissed his male bassist on stage during the 2009 American Music Awards, a media campaign was mounted against him, leading to his being banned from the ABC channel after 1,500 telephone complaints.

Lambert’s sexual orientation, however, didn’t stop an impressive array of writers wanting to work with him. For Your Entertainment included songs penned by Muse, Lady Gaga and Sam Sparro, and, bizarrely, Justin Hawkins of the Darkness. Why none of a series of singles, notably the Grammy-nominated Whataya Want from Me, became a hit in Britain is tough to fathom, not least because Lambert seems a natural successor to Robbie Williams.

While his debut was assembled in only six weeks, for Trespassing Lambert was allowed to take his time. After almost a year on tour, he rented a house in LA, saw family and friends — and, crucially, fell in love.

“When the tour ended, I was exhausted and a little depressed,” he admits. “I was definitely in a dark place when I started writing. My songs were moody, broody and angsty. I decided to make an honest, organic, stripped-back album. Then, thank God, I met my boyfriend. I was so happy, I started writing fun songs, party music.”

Half of Trespassing was co-written with Bonnie McKee, the woman responsible for Katy Perry’s California Gurls and Teenage Dream. Two songs — including the album’s clubby title track, which borrows its bass line from Another One Bites the Dust — were recorded in Miami, with Pharrell Williams producing. “Funnily enough, months before I got the Queen gig, Pharrell was calling me Freddie,” Lambert says. “He told me to go to Freddie for my dance music. Freddie and Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson, that’s the mix we were aiming for.”

Jackson-style funk is one of Trespassing’s key ingredients, not least on a slinky song called Shady, on which Chic’s Nile Rodgers crops up playing bass. Lambert contacted the guitarist via Twitter, and his million-plus followers watched as the two tweeted each other for days before meeting up in New York. Rodgers later tweeted that “working with Adam Lambert was one of the most organically perfect jams I’ve had since Bowie”.

Elsewhere on Trespassing, there is pumping 1980s rock, Euro-techno and electro, along with a couple of emotive mid-paced anthems, including the first single, Better Than I Know Myself. The defining feature of every song, however, is Lambert’s astonishing voice. Rather than the personality-free electro-pop of, say, Lady Gaga, Lambert’s dance music hinges on his theatrical, versatile vocals.

Brought up in San Diego on his former DJ dad’s 1970s record collection, Lambert joined a theatre group aged eight and was performing in professional musicals from the age of 10. He enrolled in university to study musical theatre, but lasted just five weeks — “I’m not a classroom kinda person,” he says.

In his early twenties, already openly gay, Lambert spent six months in Germany performing in Hair, an experience that he claims changed his life. “Being removed from the States, in a progressive country, getting naked on stage every night, I was cracked wide open,” he says. “I felt liberated and I found my identity. It was a huge turning point for me.”

There were lows to come, however. He got a gig acting alongside Val Kilmer in 10 Commandments: The Musical. While his performance as Joshua, leader of the Hebrew army, was praised by critics, the show sank.

Two years into a national tour of Wicked, Lambert decided to get out of theatre and start making music. He briefly fronted a garage band, did session singing and worked with producers who would come back to sue him when he became famous.

Frustrated by his lack of success, and after two years of careful consideration, Lambert auditioned for American Idol. “I was a fan of the show and I wanted to be on it, but I know it’s not cool,” he says. “There’s always a stigma among tastemakers if you come from a TV talent show, but I did what I had to do to get myself on the map. I mean, I was a 27-year-old white gay guy who wore make-up and heels. No major label was going to touch me. The fact is, 30 million people a week watch Idol — you can’t buy publicity like that.”

Earlier this year, Lambert left Simon Fuller’s 19 management stable and signed with the team behind Katy Perry. While he has claimed he regrets some of his outlandish behaviour after Idol, you doubt he meant it. “Looking back, er, objectively,” he says, “to an American audience who came to know me on a TV show, some of my first moves with my music were maybe a bit hyper-sexualised. But I was just being myself, I can’t really regret that.”

As for the shoes — and the hair — they’ll keep getting higher.

“I’ve just bought a pair of bright blue brothel creepers that make me ridiculously tall,” Lambert laughs. “Freddie would have approved. No man objects to a few extra inches.”

Subjects: Music 音楽

Mood: Gratifications

Tags: Adam Lambert, Queen