Our last stop on the Queen library tour, but even with only one official album remaining in the canon, there’s still plenty more records and songs to sift through before we can consider ourselves completists. Behold…
What an album! Queen’s final record during Freddie’s lifetime is their strongest in over a decade. Released in 1991, Innuendo was the best record they’ve released since 1980’s The Game.
That’s a lofty claim, so let me try to back that up. For starters, the epic title track rivals “Bohemian Rhapsody” as the single most majestic song in their catalog. Steve Howe plays the guitar on the bridge, because they wanted “some crazy Spanish guitar flying over the top,” and asked him to do that. The result was amazing. The video for “Innuendo” is my absolute favorite for theirs. Check it out and see why:
But it doesn’t stop there. “I’m Going Slightly Mad” shows that Queen, and Freddie in particular, still had their lyrical sense of humor. Freddie, by the time the video was to be shot, was looking quite sick, but managed to pull it all together for one of their most entertaining videos.
“Headlong” is pure Brian. It was the lead single here in the United States when Innuendo came out, and helped bring Queen back into the mainstream here. Brian, while working on the Miracle and Innuendo albums, was also working on a solo album (which I review here on Popblerd as well), and “Headlong” was originally intended for it. However, the song ended up on Innuendo instead.
I’ve always loved “I Can’t Live with You.” However, in 1997, Queen remixed the song and added it to a greatest hits collection called Queen Rocks. The remix is a bit heavier. Check it out…
Innuendo has its share of ballads, too. “Don’t Try So Hard,” “These are the Days Of Our Lives,” and “The Show Must Go on” all make it hauntingly clear that the end is near, while the upbeat “Ride the Wild Wind”, and “The Hitman” provide a much needed distraction from the heavy lyrical content of the songs surrounding them.
Finally, “Delilah” is a weird one. It took me the longest to appreciate. Once I figured out that it’s Freddie’s love song to his cat, I felt better about it. In fact, it’s got a lot of great lines in it.
Overall, Queen went out with a bang on this one.
“You can be anything you want to be
Just turn yourself into anything you think that you could ever be
Be free with your tempo be free, be free
Surrender your ego be free, be free to yourself”
MADE IN HEAVEN (1995)
The end of the road, for real this time. Innuendo is regarded as the swan song because Freddie Mercury worked on it before dying, but Made for Heaven is technically the ride into the sunset. Culled from unreleased recordings, alternate takes, and even Freddie’s first solo album Mr. Bad Guy for some reason (the songs they chose were good ones but there’s a mile-long list of never-used Queen songs they could’ve and should’ve used instead), all of which (except for Freddie’s vocals, of course) were re-recorded for this new album to give it a proper 1995 feel, the two years spent piecing it all together yielded a surprisingly cohesive-sounding final work, even with the presence of some gratuitous fourth wall-breaking shenanigans like track-skipping at the end of “Mother Love” (rumored to be a compression of every Queen song ever made, but what’s the point if the stunt is going to be so unceremoniously presented and impossible to appreciate?), the four-second-long album closer “Yeah” (consisting literally of Freddie saying “yeah”, taken from “Don’t Try Suicide”; were there really no in-studio bon mots to stand as his final testament?), and the 22-minute sound collage of a hidden finale. Upon Freddie’s insistence in the final months of his life, the group tried to prepare yet another album to follow 1991’s Innuendo, but Freddie himself only made it through about three tracks before passing away in November of that year, at age 45. The process of completing the album, initiated about a year after Freddie’s death, was grueling – according to Brian May, however naturalistic it all sounds on the released album, none of it was even remotely complete at the outset. Many of Freddie’s vocals weren’t whole, and had to be strung together shred by shred. It’s a remarkable likeness of a regular album given those circumstances; not a return to form by any means – lots of dull patches (go ahead and ignore “Mother Love”, “You Don’t Fool Me”, “Yeah”, and everything after that), nothing that needs to be set aside for any Queen best-of lists – but an admirably optimistic Frakenstein’s monster of the band’s ’80s leftovers (nothing was used from the ’70s, although the earliest discussions of “Let Me Live” date to Day at the Races circa 1976). Rather than yet another jumbo pack of faceless rock ‘n’ roll and flaccid ballads in the tradition of The Miracle and Innuendo, the remaining trio of band members did away with the hard rock in favor of wistful reveries and a couple of surging, stand-up-and-holler proclamations. The handful of places where they do rock (“Let Me Live”, “I Was Born to Love You”, “It’s a Beautiful Day (Reprise)”) are absent of any aggression; they’re meant instead as pure-hearted climaxes, a way of celebrating Freddie’s resilience and joie de vivre.
Essentially, it’s The Freddie Says Goodbye Show, 47 minutes of the immortal singer expressing his thanks for life and love (not counting “Mother Love” and “You Don’t Fool Me”, tracks designed for the “new” album Freddie wanted to make, hence not direct riffs on his mortality). Few real-life-death-related albums ever receive this manner of deluxe treatment, channeling somebody’s last days and departing wisdom so unequivocally. In light of Freddie’s predilection for sweeping gestures, schmaltzy touches like the chirping birds in “It’s a Beautiful Day”, multiple references to the afterlife, and the peaceful transcendance of “A Winter’s Tale” (which sounds for all the world like Freddie closing his eyes for the last time and heading toward the light) don’t come across as exploitative so much as Queen-brand (latter-day) pageantry in honor of His Majesty’s soul; besides, it’s all tempered with some pockets of black humor regarding the singer’s condition – the blatantly titled “Too Much Love Will Kill You” could not have been a coincidence, and there seems to be a bleak sarcasm to “My Life Has Been Saved”, despite Freddie’s earnest take. It’s a tastefully modulated blend.
Regarding the two songs refurbished from Mr. Bad Guy: his rendition of Made in Heaven was more plaintive; a modicum of flair is added to this new one in order to align it with Queen’s mannerisms (really though, by the mid-’80s, every track on Freddie’s Mr. Bad Guy could’ve believably been a Queen song; that project was a detour for his sake, not ours). “I Was Born to Love You” is now backed by pounding electric guitars, not glittering synths, and sounds like a beefed-up remastering. Of these two, it’s the one you want you might want to replace its original.
Queen’s journey ends here, sadly. No, The Cosmo Rocks with Paul Rodgers does not count. Not to be a stubborn fanboy, but there is no Queen without one of the original quartet. There are very few bands, fewer still on Queen’s mega-fame level, that held the exact same band members, none lost, none gained, throughout their entire run, especially when you consider that they lasted 20 years. They were the rare music family that never bickered too seriously, who had a stable, mutually supportive professional relationship from start to finish. The legacy they left behind speaks to that inclusive spirit – though their later music was less engaging, it never completely abandoned the vigor, the devotion to craft, or the down-to-earth humanity that they could always clearly express, no matter how far out of orbit they traveled musically. They never let fame overwhelm their sensibilities, nor failure extinguish their spirits. They toyed around with all kinds of ideas, stretching the allotted boundaries for rock music without sacrificing any of its populist exhilaration and joy. In the studio and in their imaginations, they thought big and they thought fun. What we as listeners and music lovers received was nearly 200 songs, many securely ranked amongst the finest ever made in the pantheon of popular music, others awaiting similar dues upon re-discovery, and in all, a collection of musical recordings whose range, subversive sense of humor, and ongoing cultural relevance knows only one peer (a fellow quartet of cheeky Brits), yet even the Fab Four didn’t mix the glory and the good times as happily as Mr. Fahrenheit and his champions of the world (princes of the universe?). For that, we should never stop celebrating their music.
GEORGE MICHAEL – FIVE LIVE EP (1993)
George Michael was one of the biggest pop stars in the world in 1992, and his contribution to the Freddie Mercury tribute concert was the main reason I tuned in. I’d imagine it was the same for many others. The Five Live EP is an outstanding audio document of his set during the show. Two of the five songs are recorded by George with the surviving members of Queen, two songs are covers of non-Queen songs, and there’s also a short Queen track, “Dear Friends”. George is in perfect voice throughout this EP, delivering a powerful version of “Somebody to Love” with some spine-tingling crowd interaction. GM teams with fellow blue-eyed soul diva Lisa Stansfield for a wistful run through “These are the Days of Our Lives”, but for my money, the standout track is a cover of The Steeles’ haunting “Calling You” that captures George’s solid interpretive skills the way few of the many covers in his catalog do.
Meanwhile, Brian May was no slouch in-between Queen records himself…
Brian Harold May, in addition to his work with Queen, has released two proper studio solo albums, a live album, an EP with Eddie Van Halen, has composed a soundtrack, has appeared as a guest on literally dozens of songs for other musicians, and is an astrophysicist who co-authored Bang! – The Complete History of the Universe with Sir Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott. He continues to work with Roger Taylor on Queen-related events, and in recent years, has produced and performed on three albums for Kerry Ellis. As for his solo work…
Brian May & Friends: Star Fleet Project (1983)
Like Roger, Brian was productive during Queen’s 1983 “break.” He jammed with Eddie Van Halen, who at the time was nearing the peak of his success (Van Halen’s 1984 was released a couple months after this EP), along with REO Speedwagon’s drummer Alan Gratzer, bassist Phil Chen, and keyboard player Fred Mandel. The result was 3 songs that were never intended for commercial release, but apparently everyone that he played them for, urged him to release them. So he did. Thankfully, we get to hear Eddie and Brian trade solos back and forth on this one.
BRIAN MAY – BACK TO THE LIGHT (1992)
Back to the Light is Brian’s first proper solo album, and while he had been working on it during Queen’s sessions for the Miracle & Innuendo albums, it didn’t get completed until 1992. This is essential listening for any Queen fan, as it stands up against their catalog quite well. Check out the title track, which features Cozy Powell on drums:
“Resurrection” is also one of my favorites: the bridge has so many layers of backing vocals (probably more than any Queen track), that the rest of the mix had to be significantly lowered for a few seconds just to fit it all in! Then he launches into an amazing guitar solo that is pure Brian!
Other highlights include the original version of “Too Much Love Will Kill You,” a touching tribute to Philip Sayer called “Just One Life,” and a cover of a relatively obscure (if you live in the U.S.) track by the Small Faces called “Rollin’ Over.”
And of course there is some incredible guitar playing by the guy with the greatest tone in rock & roll. Well done, Brian!
BRIAN MAY – LIVE AT BRIXTON ACADEMY (1994)
After the Back to the Light album, Brian went on a tour to support it (which I was lucky enough to catch). This album is a good representation of the tour: a handful of songs from Back to the Light, and a handful of “Brian’s” Queen songs: “Tie Your Mother Down,” “Headlong, “’39,” “Now I’m Here,” “We Will Rock You,” and “Hammer to Fall.” Cozy Powell came along for the tour, so they did “Since You’ve Been Gone.” There’s also a very fitting version of “Love of My Life,” as Freddie had just passed a couple years prior.
BRIAN MAY – ANOTHER WORLD (1998)
After Made in Heaven was completed, Brian recorded a follow up to Back to the Light. The album started off as a covers record, but evolved into a solo album of mostly original material. I have to admit, I wouldn’t have known of its existence if I hadn’t accidentally seen it in a record store shortly after release. There was very little promotion for it, and I never heard any singles on the radio from it.
As for the covers, three of them showed up on the album, and the rest ended up as B-sides. On the album, we have Mott The Hoople’s “All the Way from Memphis,”
Larry Williams’ “Slow Down”, and Jimi Hendrix’s “One Rainy Wish”
Sadly, Cozy Powell died in a car accident before this record was completed. The track “Business” was released in a couple different mixes, and this particular one was the version from the single, and showcases Cozy:
Taylor Hawkins makes an appearance what is probably the weirdest track on the album, “Cyborg,” and one of my favorites is the beautiful “Why Don’t We Try Again.”
Overall, Another World is not as strong a release as Back to the Light, but it still has several gems on it.
BRIAN MAY – FURIA
This album is for the hardcore fans only. It’s mostly instrumental music that Brian scored for a French film that no one in the U.S. has seen or heard of. This is the main theme, and the closest thing to a “pop song” that you’re going to get from this release:
However, bear in mind that it’s not supposed to be a “Brian May solo album”
FREDDIE MERCURY – MR. BAD GUY (1985)
Feeling his age (37) and needing a break, Freddie finally started putting together his own side project as early as 1983, spending more than a couple years perfecting every last inch of the 11 songs he ultimately used (out of a much larger original song count), but like a lot of solo works, especially debuts, it does give off a Diet-Queen impression. Specifically, Freddie was still in a funky mood after Hot Space, but instead of pushing his discontent band-mates to try again for the next album, he shunted said interests off to his own side work, though there’s not nearly as much dance music on Mr. Bad Guy as you’d expect from a man infatuated with it who was finally freed to spread his wings and spoil himself. At most, there’s a loose current of funk running through three tracks – “Let’s Turn it on”, “Man-Made Paradise”, and “Foolin’ Around”, but even those lean more on pop hooks than disco influence. If any aspect of this LP sets it apart from the Queen family tree, it’s the absence of rock music. Brian May, the head-banging-est member of the group, Roger Taylor, and to a smaller extent John Deacon may have been the ones insisting on Queen’s hard edge this whole time, because if this album is any indication, at least come the early ’80s, Freddie was showing no personal interest in penning the clobberingly aggressive rock for which his day job was still primarily known (and would hereafter almost exclusively concentrate). Instead, there’s a low-key, light-hearted tone dominating Mr. Bad Guy. The tracklist is made up of some modestly up-tempo hip shakers, a genre exercise or two, and an inevitable handful of achingly sincere ballads. Not an auspicious set, nor as startling a production as Queen often aimed to accomplish, but taken as a collection of alternately cheeky and confessional musings on life and love, it does satisfy for the most part.
What disappoints is the false sense of complacency (false because Freddie actually spent nearly two years trying to perfect every second of the record). Beyond his playful spirit and the hearty vocal workout that he delivers time after time, there isn’t much inspiration or ambition to be heard on the album. Even the better songs don’t come close to matching the high points of any of the ten albums Queen had already released at that point. Either Freddie’s songwriting well was running a bit dry, or the quality that we associate with his music depends just as much on the creative input (or ego-clashing, whichever interpretation you prefer) of Brian, Roger, and John. It’s not an Achilles Heel or anything, but Mr. Bad Guy could use a healthy tightening somehow, and many of its tracks belong as B-sides, if only there were more A-side winners to go around. You can’t blame his track selection, either, seeing as how the recorded songs that didn’t make the final cut – like pre-release single “Love Kills” and session demos “God is Heavy”, “Love Makin’ Love”, “Gazelle”, and “Money Can’t Buy Happiness” would have only furthered the album’s pleasant but somewhat forgettable tone (it should be said that the surprisingly strong B-sides from “Made in Heaven” and “I Was Born to Love You” – “She Blows Hot and Cold” and “Stop All the Fighting”, respectively – show much healthier signs of life, but their relegation to B-side status says it all: Freddie was deliberately courting a gentler flow for the project).
“Your Kind of Lover” ranks number one in my book, but it depends on how you like your Queen prepared. Rapid-fire with searing guitars? No luck of that here. Drowsy and vaguely irritating? Sorry, that’s Roger. Operatic? Wait till Freddie’s next solo album. How about peppy, melodic, and itching to kick-start a party, like “Don’t Stop Me Now”? “Lover” covers that territory, and even recalls a bit of their Opera/Races days with a fake-out dramatic prelude before breaking out in a happy sprint. It’s a natural born single, even though it never was (how they did squeeze four hits out of this album and none was “Your Kind of Lover”? Baffling). “Let’s Turn it on”, “I Was Born to Love You”, and “Foolin’ Around” offer comparable pleasures.
Second-place honors go to the marvelously intriguing (and seldom heard in pop music) tuba intro to the title song, though it may well be just a modulated synthesizer. Still, “Mr. Bad Guy” was the one and only song that employed an orchestra (at Freddie’s excited behest), so it might be. The symphonic fills later in the song portend the forthcoming Barcelona, too (as if Queen’s entire career weren’t enough of a prediction that that album would eventually get made). Also, depending on your mood, the synth-bounding, scat-happy “Living on My Own”, reminiscent of an “Under Pressure” outtake the way Freddie free-styles gibberish. There’s some jazzy, improvisatory piano included that probably would’ve made other moments on the album more interesting in lieu of the formal (/dull) arrangements on the ballads, for starters. The ingredients for “Living on My Own” could’ve resulted in a tasteless misfire, but Freddie has the sizzle to pull it off.
Less successful endeavors include the one and only reggae song in the Queen universe, aka “My Love is Dangerous”. It’s easy enough to remember, but not catchy at all and nothing would be lost if it had been left on the session floor, except for a quasi-redemptive, tempo-elevating final (note: I swear I’m not being rock-ist against other types of music, but come on, hearing reggae morph into hair metal sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? And sorry, but Freddie Mercury is no Bob Marley or Toots Hibbert; he can’t make this song work on its own). “There Must Be More to Life Than This” was one of the songs he tried out with Michael Jackson a couple years prior, and it’s nice and all, but even if they’d released that duet, its soft balladry would’ve insured a destiny closer to that of “The Girl is Mine”: amiable, inessential, a letdown considering the music legends involved. The other two soul-searching slow jams – “Love Me Like There’s No Tomorrow” and “Made in Heaven” (a particular favorite of Freddie’s; it was even the working title of this album), both singles – are utterly underwhelming, if you ask me. I’m sure they meant a lot to Freddie, but, like “One Year of Love” recorded a year later for Queen’s A Kind of Magic, they sound like limp attempts to capture the R&B market.
Mr. Bad Guy enjoyed some success in the UK and elsewhere, but charted extremely low here in America, and none the singles cracked the top 10 anywhere. Critics were kind, and Freddie, perhaps just relieved to have survived such a meticulous process, expressed satisfaction with the results. Soon he was back in the studio with the band, prepping a Highlander soundtrack that would go on to sell big and launch a worldwide record-stomping tour (Freddie’s last, as it would turn out). “Made in Heaven” and “I Was Born to Love You” would be re-worked for Queen’s farewell album in 1995, the former even finally earning the album-title status it was destined for. Ultimately though, Mr. Bad Guy hasn’t lasted the way Queen albums of the time have. It’s been fallen between the cracks of history; even with some disposable cuts, it deserves to stand alongside any of Queen’s ’80s output.
FREDDIE MERCURY & MONTSERRAT CABALLE – BARCELONA (1988)
As the only other completed volume of music in Freddie Mercury’s side career away from Queen, his grandiloquent collaboration with Spanish diva Montserrat Caballe puts Mr. Bad Guy‘s pop-comp doodles into sharp relief. Barcelona feels like Freddie at his most unleashed, the star of a bona fide opera like he always wanted. It’s here, not on Mr. Bad Guy, where his romantic laments and reflections on looming mortality are given their proper soundtrack.
Conceived when Freddie was invited to partner with famed opera soprano Caballe in creating the theme to Barcelona’s 1992 hosting of the Olympic Games, “Barcelona” is the ultimate fulfillment of the symphonic promise built into their masterworks A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. With one ill-fitting exception (“How Can I Go on”, practically a re-write of “There Must Be More to Life Than This”, utilizing standard pop music instrumentation, including a John Deacon cameo on bass, and contriving unconvicingly to insert Caballe’s operatics into the mix), all the tracks are classical compositions, arranged with a full orchestra, sounding like a hybridization between a John Williams score, a Disney musical, and a Broadway show. Sometimes they’re pitched at high-drama opera (“The Fallen Priest”), sometimes at gospel (“The Golden Boy”), sometimes at delicate piano hymnals (“Ensueno”, “Guide Me Home”). Freddie and Caballe weave between each other throughout, their voices tender, fluid, immaculately pitched, and often aimed magnificently at the cheap seats. One song has Japanese verses, another is sung entirely in Spanish. The closing track, “Overture Piccante”, even resembles at times the touching strains of an Alan Silvestri suite (think Contact, Forrest Gump, the quieter moments in Back to the Future).
It’s a classy affair, not to mention the most complex song structures Freddie had attempted since the mid-’70s. The album fits the usual length of Queen works (’round 40 minutes), but with only eight tracks, most at least top five minutes apiece, giving him and co-writer Mike Moran the chance to take each one on winding sonic odysseys. The results are engrossing, and kind of a believable distant evolution of the Queen sound itself, had they chosen opera instead of rock. If you close your eyes, you can try to fool yourself into hearing this album as the follow-up to A Day at the Races, assuming Brian and Roger were transformed into conductors.
Unfortunately it’s nearly unheard-of these days. When it came out in 1988, England was the only place it appeared, and even there it only sold to the classical market. Upon Freddie’s death and the popular use of the title song for the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona got a re-issue and was finally made available in the U.S. For all the attention and sales it garnered that year, though, it got lost in the crowded shuffle of retrospective Queen memorabilia at the time, and nowadays, even people who like Queen might’ve never heard of this album, more so than Mr. Bad Guy, ironically since that one hasn’t even been in print for decades whereas Barcelona remains plenty accessible (it even received a second special edition reissue last year). In the grand scheme of things, though, that’s a fair shake: Barcelona is the much stronger of Freddie’s two solo albums and deserves all the acclaim it never properly got.