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'If I had to choose a Queen song that sums up the political situation in NI, it would be Too Much Love Will Kill You... people here are too passionate, they can't see beyond their own entrenched position'

The release of new Queen movie, Bohemian Rhapsody, means Harry Hamilton, lead singer with tribute band Flash Harry, will be busier than ever. He talks to Leona O'Neill about the enduring appeal of Freddie Mercury and why he stepped back from a role in politics here

In the months after Queen frontman Freddie Mercury passed away, five Lurgan school friends decided to keep the music alive in Northern Ireland and formed a tribute band in honour of their idols.

They thought they'd get a year or two at the most out of performing cover versions of hit songs like Don't Stop Me Now and We Are the Champions.

But an incredible 26 years later the band - Flash Harry - are still selling out concert halls and, with this weekend's release of the Queen movie Bohemian Rhapsody, are about to get a lot busier again.

Lead singer Harry Hamilton (53) lives in Lurgan with wife Heather and their daughters Brooke (22), Lucy (21) and Tianna (17). He says the band's initial vision was just to play the music they loved, but that quickly evolved into something much bigger.

"I was always a Queen fan," he says. "But I was never a fanatic. I remember very clearly the morning after Freddie Mercury died on November 24 in 1991.

"I was sitting eating breakfast in my home - in Queen's Walk actually in Lurgan - and it was on the radio about him having passed away.

"It wasn't unexpected. To anyone who was a Queen fan, and had been following Freddie's journey, they were aware of the stories that had been leaking out. Just days before his death he had announced that he had Aids. I think that anyone who was paying attention would have realised that it was imminent.

"Our band came about as a reaction to his death. I was a musician and playing in bands at the time so we decided to form one that would celebrate Freddie's life and his music. We just really played Queen music, we didn't dress up or call ourselves a tribute band.

"We didn't consciously set out to set up a band for this, it really just came as a reaction to his death. But it went so well that we carried on and then it evolved into what it is today. And now we are going back to where we started off, just celebrating the music.

"We have been performing for 26 years now and it has gone really well. At the start we thought we would get maybe 18 months out of it, but here we are in 2018. It is fun. We get the opportunity to have little adventures. Last year we played in Switzerland for the Queen fan club out there - we went to the Mountain Studios in Montreux, where the band recorded seven albums.

"Twenty-six years after we first formed we just continue to evolve and concentrate on the music. And as long as people are willing to come along and enjoy the gigs we are more than happy to continue. There is no reason to stop. We all work, we don't have to do this. We don't do this for a living - we all have full-time jobs - we do it because we enjoy it, it's a bit of fun on the side."

Harry, who is a project manager for the NI Food and Drink Association, is the first to admit that back in those early days he never imagined the tribute band would still be on the road more than two decades later.

"I never thought that Flash Harry would have such longevity," he says.

"I really thought that we would be over after the first two years. We thought the fad would pass. But obviously not. Of course, like anything there are peaks and troughs. I would imagine that we are going into a bigger period again now that there is more interest in Queen music with the film."

Why does Harry think Queen's music has stood the test of time? Essentially, he says, it comes down to their genius when it came to writing good songs.

"Freddie has endured because he was such an icon, and I also think the music itself is so enduring," he explains. "The songwriting and the songs are very strong. There is such a variety of them and such a variety of styles. You go from the hard rock in the early Seventies to the disco stuff, to opera to stadium anthems. The songs don't date and they don't becoming boring and I think that is what gives them that enduring appeal. Freddie's image and the image of Queen is secondary, I think, to the music."

Harry, who married wife Heather in 1994, says his three daughters have taken after him musically, but that only one of them has followed him onto the stage.

He adds: "Family life is great. With three daughters it's all boyfriends, university, school, jobs, buying their first car, all the usual things. Each of my daughters is musical, but my middle daughter, Lucy, is the only one who has followed me onto the stage. She has opened for us at the SSE Arena at our shows. She performs cover versions also, such as Amy Winehouse, although she does write her own stuff too."

Beyond the stage, Harry also made some noise in political circles, firstly with the UUP and then with Alliance. But he says, due to the polarised nature of politics in Northern Ireland, his days of elections are well and truly over.

"I'm still a member of the Alliance Party, but I have no aspirations to run in any elections," he says.

"I think that was almost a mid-life crisis that I went through. Some people go out to buy motorbikes, but I decided to get involved in politics. I still very much care about what happens to the country but over recent years it has become so polarised that I've actually just stood back and thought that really the public don't want change.

"As soon as a challenge comes up they retreat back into the trenches. And that is very unfortunate. So I think to myself, 'What is the point of knocking doors and speaking to people who don't want to hear what I've got to say?'"

If he could sum up Northern Ireland's situation in a Queen song, he says two in particular stand out for him.

"I think Too Much Love Will Kill You sums us up well," he says.

"People are too passionate about Northern Ireland that they can't actually see beyond their own nose and their own entrenched position.

"There is too much love and if they stood back a bit from that they might see something positive. I really don't feel that positive about it. It is a pretty hopeless situation at the moment.

"It is very blinkered and I don't think people realise where we are in the scheme of things, as regards the sovereignty of a country or the changes that are going to happen due to Brexit.

"Another song that comes to mind is The Show Must Go On, and that is us really."

Harry says Queen's music has brought him many memorable nights, and many amazing opportunities, for which he is eternally grateful.

"It has been a rock 'n' roll lifestyle for sure," he says.

"But, as I said, it's something that we have done on a part-time basis. We have had some really good times and some memorable occasions. We have played at the SSE Arena in Belfast three times with the Ulster Orchestra. It was all Queen music and we had a 50-piece choir and a full orchestra. It was one of my proudest moments. To play in an arena of that size, and to do it three times. As a musician it just doesn't get any better.

"We played at the Royal Albert Hall too. We have had a good run.

"We are still going strong, we are still gigging away. We are at the Grand Opera House, Belfast now in February. Queen's breakthrough album was called A Night At The Opera so we are going to recreate that at the Opera House."

This weekend will see cinemagoers flock to the first screenings of Bohemian Rhapsody, starring Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, and Harry is confident the movie will introduce Queen - and therefore Flash Harry - to a whole new generation of fans.

"Bohemian Rhapsody is being premiered this weekend and we are performing beforehand as a prelude to the show at the SSE Arena in Belfast and also in Banbridge," he says.

"So that will be amazing. I can't wait to see the film.

"There is still a huge interest in Queen's music. You see it on the X Factor, on television adverts and the like.

"It is never too far away from the public consciousness. So it has been very good for us. We find people, aged from 15-70, all know Queen's music. They have been very successful in keeping this music very contemporary.

"That is good news for us and that is probably why we can still sell out in places like the Opera House and the Waterfront.
"I think this film will probably increase the awareness of the music even further to another generation of fans. When we are playing this weekend before the film is shown, my daughters will all be there too and their ages range from 22 down to 17. So maybe we will get another 25 years out of it yet."

Interestingly, while Freddie was famed for his striking stage outfits, an essential element in transforming him into one of rock's most memorable showmen, Harry says he doesn't tend to dress up as much these days for his performances.

"Originally when we started I would have dressed up as Freddie Mercury," he explains.

"But I don't do that as much anymore. Now we really concentrate on the music. Because ultimately the music is the key point of it all. If you dress up you'll hold people's attention for a few songs, but after that if you can't maintain it on a musical level then no one's interested. It's good to known that 25 years on we are doing something right, musically."

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