Nearly 20 years after Freddie Mercury’s death brought Queen’s reign over rock music to a premature end, the band retains its iconic status and influence. It’s not for nothing that Brian May headlined the VMAs alongside Lady Gaga in August; Gaga is one of many artists who cite Queen among their inspirations. And with so many cult-status songs under the band’s belt that should be no surprise. Few artists have achieved anything like Queen’s enduring appeal.
This year is also the 40th anniversary of Queen’s formation. In celebration of that milestone, the band’s entire back catalogue has been digitally re-mastered. The final five albums – The Works, A Kind of Magic, The Miracle, Innuendo and Made in Heaven – are released on 5 September, which would have been Freddie Mercury’s 65th birthday. Together the albums represent the band at their most influential and, ultimately, most tragic.
The Works – 1984
The Works, released in 1984, took the band back to their rock roots after their R&B and funk-inspired 1982 album, Hot Space. Where Hot Space had split fans and critics over its solid disco style, The Works was a clearer expression of the band’s traditional glossy rock sound. ‘I Want to Break Free’ mixes a steady acoustic bass line with whining synths in a style that was to become the band’s stock-in-trade throughout the Eighties (note that the album version might not be familiar to those who have only heard the later, longer single). ‘Radio Gaga’, meanwhile, adopts a heavier electronic sound, well-suited to the song’s sci-fi appeal, with lyrics inspired by HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds and a video based on Fritz Lang’s silent movie Metropolis.
Lesser-known tracks include the rockabilly ‘Man on the Prowl’, set up almost as a sequel in sound to 1979’s ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’, and the heavily electronic ‘Machines (Or ‘Back to Humans’)’. ‘Tear It Up’, a heavy stadium rock number, was an obvious effort to reassert Queen’s traditional heavy rock sound. In this respect, it is a worthy representative of The Works, which bolstered Queen’s claim to be masters of their genre after a somewhat confused foray into disco. Unfortunately, the album was also to represent the peak of the band’s popularity in the USA, where a rather prudish audience felt that Freddie Mercury’s drag routine in the video for ‘I Want to Break Free’ was a step too far.
A Kind of Magic – 1986
In 1985 Queen stormed the show at Live Aid, at a time when the press was questioning their talent and harassing Mercury during the gathering storm of the HIV/Aids epidemic. The following year, the band pushed back against critics harder still by releasing A Kind of Magic, possibly their most accomplished and experimental album of the period.
A Kind of Magic sees Queen turn to a deft blend of electronica, orchestral arrangement and hard rock, to produce an album truly worthy of its title. Its first track, ‘One Vision’, introduces the album with a synth-laden opening sequence before breaking into a rock and electronic tour-de-force. The album’s title track takes a quieter approach, with John Deacon’s famous bass line perfectly complementing a restrained performance from Brian May and some of Mercury’s most bravura vocals. ‘Gimme the Prize’, meanwhile, gives the band a chance to show that they could still deliver their traditional heavy sound.
The album serves as the unofficial companion to the execrable Highlander, and is one of the few genuinely good things to emerge from the movie. Along with ‘Gimme the Prize’, two other tracks stand out in connection with the film – ‘Princes of the Universe’, whose heavy rock sound was the clearest echo of the band’s earlier style to make it into the album, and the epic ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’. Duff notes, however, also crept in, with ‘Pain is So Close to Pleasure’ offering little but soft-ballad boredom to an otherwise storming album.
A Kind of Magic was promoted with the 1986 Magic Tour, one of the biggest rock tours ever. Over a million people in 11 countries saw Queen perform, with the Wembley Stadium concert on 11 July captured for posterity in Live at Wembley Stadium. Sadly, the final performance – at Knebworth on 9 August – was also to be the band’s last ever live show.
The Miracle – 1989
In 1987 Freddie Mercury tested positive for HIV. The news brought Queen’s status as one of the world’s foremost touring bands to a close. At the same time, the band took a break from recording while individual members worked on solo projects. Roger Taylor released his solo album, Shove It in 1988, and in the same year Mercury released his collaboration with the Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé, Barcelona. Mercury and Caballé wrote the album’s title track to be the theme tune for Barcelona’s 1992 Summer Olympic Games, and performed a number of tracks from the album live in the city in 1988. It was to be the last time Mercury sang in public.
During that same year the band were busy recording their 13th studio album, The Miracle, which was released in 1989. Mercury’s health was already in decline; videos from the album show him looking leaner and more serious, a condition which was reflected in many of the album’s tracks. The title track finds the band in philosophical mode, presenting thoughtful lyrics alongside a comparatively light and playful sound. ‘I Want It All’ and ‘Kashoggi’s Ship’ represent the band’s heavier rock sound, while ‘Was It All Worth It’ takes the prize as one of their most over-the-top and bombastic numbers.
The Miracle is notable in that it is the first of Queen’s albums where tracks are credited to the whole band, rather than to individuals. ‘Scandal’, ‘The Invisible Man’ and ‘Breakthru’ prove that Queen was always more than just four performers, with each member’s contribution to the band’s sound starkly evident. The Miracle is a solid, if not entirely inspirational, album. Its release sealed the end of Queen’s wildest and most influential era – but it certainly didn’t mark the end of the show.
Innuendo – 1991
In 1990 Freddie Mercury had been diagnosed with Aids and his health was in freefall. As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, persistent rumours and intrusions from the press effectively placed him under house arrest. Still, he and his band-mates toiled as hard as ever. May recalls that even at his weakest, Mercury would knock back vodka and proclaim, ‘fuck it, let’s do it’ before laying down flawless vocals.
Those vocals were set for release in 1991’s Innuendo, the band’s final album before Mercury’s death on 24 November of that year. Unsurprisingly, the album is the band’s bleakest; almost every song carries a note of tragedy, backed with defiance and good humour. ‘Don’t Try So Hard’ sees the band express themselves in typically rock-operatic style, while their famous heavier sound is apparent in ‘Headlong’ and ‘I Can’t Live With You’. Mercury shows his playful side, meanwhile, in his tribute to his beloved cats, ‘Delilah’, and the madcap imagery of ‘I’m Going Slightly Mad’.
Three of Innuendo’s tracks stand out as an expression of the band’s solidarity behind their front-man. ‘Bijou’ sees Mercury and May perform a duet notable for its plaintive sound and heavily mournful lyrics. ‘These Are the Days of Our Lives’ brings a note of reflective contemplation on youth and lost opportunities, and also served as Mercury’s last-ever on-screen appearance in a video that remains too painful for some fans to watch.
But the most famous and powerful track on the album surely carries its strongest message. By turns defiant, desperately sad and powerfully inspirational, ‘The Show Must Go On’ was the last single to be released before Mercury finally succumbed to Aids-related pneumonia. His soaring vocals, backed by May’s screaming guitar solo, Taylor’s ground-shaking percussion and Deacon’s oppressive bass, betray not a shred of regret. The song – and its album – remains a fitting tribute to one of rock’s most accomplished performers.
Made in Heaven – 1995
Four years after Freddie Mercury’s death, the band released its final studio album. Made in Heaven contains a number of previously unheard recordings, along with re-dubbed solo efforts from Mercury and Brian May. While it finds a useful position as an epilogue to the band’s story, at the time of its release some critics felt it was ghoulish and strained. Unquestionably, however, it served to remind a new generation of music fans that better things came before Oasis and Take That, and it seemed to fit well into the mid-Nineties zeitgeist.
The album’s opening track, ‘It’s a Beautiful Day’, was never performed for an album; a scrap recording from 1980, Mercury’s performance was no less impressive than when he was in full-on recording mode. The track gives John Deacon a chance to show that he is more than a thumping bassist, as he contributes a dreamy orchestral sequence that does seem to come straight from the afterlife. A similarly dreamy performance is evident in ‘A Winter’s Tale’, Mercury’s final solo composition.
The trademark heavy rock sound makes its familiar appearance in ‘I Was Born To Love You’ and ‘Made in Heaven’, both tracks from Mercury’s 1985 solo album, Mr Bad Guy. Brian May also contributes a solo track, ‘Too Much Love Will Kill You’, treated to a superb and histrionic performance by Mercury.
The stand-out track is, surely, ‘Mother Love’. As painful as it must have been, Mercury lay down the vocals as he started to suffer from the pneumonia that was to claim his life. His performance carries more anguish than anything else he ever sang, and even his remarkable determination couldn’t see the whole thing through; the final verse is performed instead by Brian May, before a coda featuring a ‘databurst’ of every track Queen ever recorded. As the track plays out, it book-ends Mercury’s final performance with a sample of his first – 1973’s ‘Goin’ Back’. It is a painful and shatteringly sad track, and it is a fitting tribute to Mercury that it is also one of his finest.
Ultimately, though, Made in Heaven is notable more for its novelty than for its originality. The band’s surviving members did their best with what they had. However middling the result, it’s very hard indeed to imagine that Queen’s discography would ever have felt complete without it.
The Works, A Kind of Magic, The Miracle, Innuendo and Made in Heaven are all re-issued on 5 September, and are available to buy through Amazon.co.uk. Queen: Live at Wembley Stadium and Deep Cuts Vol. 3 are also released on 5 September.