10. I Want To Break Free (The Works, 1984)
Can anyone ever forget the sight of Roger Taylor as a schoolgirl – or a moustachioed Freddie Mercury vacuuming in full drag – in the remarkable David Mallett-produced video for this hit number three single? We think probably not. The video cost an estimated £100,000 to make and had all the ingredients of a mundane kitchen sink drama, yet it quickly became one of the band’s most iconic promos. The crashing bores over at MTV took exception to the clip – probably the dressing in drag – and banned it from being shown in North America. Which, of course, did nothing to hamper its success in the slightest.
But it wasn't just the video which made it such a brilliant single. Written by John Deacon, its simple rhythm, synth-led intro and soaring guitars were the perfect foil for the song's barbed lyrics about escaping domestic mundanity and Mercury's razor-sharp vocal performance. "John didn't write many songs, but most of them sure counted," said May of the song in 2003.
9. Innuendo (Innuendo, 1991)
Written by Roger Taylor, the dark and complex Innuendo has been called the Bohemian Rhapsody of the 90s. The title track of the last album released in Mercury's lifetime – which had a guest appearance from Steve Howe, who dubbed it "heavy metal flamenco" – began as a jam, before being opened up into a flowing track that incorporated some fantastically synthesised orchestrations. Plus there's the brilliant, arresting lyrics: 'Surrender your ego; be free, be free.'
Knowing that time was running out on their life as a recording band, the four members grouped together with the intention of creating something that rivalled the power of their most popular albums when they turned their attentions to Innuendo. Sure, the track may have seemed like a risk, but the band had little left to lose. "It's got the bolero-type rhythm," said May in 1991. "That's going to be the first single here. It's a bit of a risk, but it's different, and you either win it all or you lose it all. It had a nice sound and feel, and we stuck with that."
The risk payed off. Despite mixed reviews – which Queen were well used to by now – it stormed into the number one spot in the charts.
8. Under Pressure (Hot Space, 1982)
Recorded with David Bowie, Roger Taylor is right to call this song “one of the very best things Queen have done”.
The first time Queen collaborated with another artist they got their second UK No.1. Both Queen and David Bowie happened to be in Montreux in October 1981 and according to Swiss promoter Claude Nobs: “We had a big barbecue at my house with wine and the weather was beautiful and at midnight I said to them: ‘Why don’t you go to the studio and do something?’. They looked at me and said: ‘What do you mean?’ And I said: ‘You don’t always have Queen and David Bowie together so why don’t you go into the studio and see what you can do?’.”
By next morning they’d recorded the song. It’s underpinned by one of the finest bass lines in pop history from John Deacon, but most of the arrangements were done by Mercury whose soaring vocals, while a perfect complement to Bowie’s, steal the show spectacularly. Bowie apparently wanted to re-record it all, but Queen’s sense of spontaneity prevailed.
7. Killer Queen (Sheer Heart Attack, 1974)
“You almost expect Noel Coward to sing it,” said Freddie of Queen’s ode to a high-class call girl. “It’s one of those bowler hat, black suspender belt numbers.” Hitting number two in the UK in late 1974, Killer Queen was the band’s big breakthrough. It also announced Freddie Mercury as a singular talent, a pop-rock song so perfectly poised, with an evocative lyric full of classic lines: “Gunpowder, gelatine/Dynamite with a laser beam/Guaranteed to blow your mind.” Also in Killer Queen is arguably the greatest Brian May solo of all time.
Many have claimed to be the inspiration behind Killer Queen, most notably Eric ‘Monster! Monster!’ Hall, the future football agent who then worked as Queen’s radio plugger. According to Mercury, the title character was pure fantasy.
“No, I’d never really met a woman like that,” he explained after the album’s release. “I can dream up all kinds of things. That’s the kind of world I live in. It’s very flamboyant.”
6. Who Wants To Live Forever (A Kind Of Magic, 1986)
Brian May’s eloquently expressed rebuttal of the need for eternal life appeared in the Highlander movie, and assumed a new and unwelcome tone on November 24, 1991. While May sings the first verse of the album version, Mercury's soaring vocals fill the rest of the track, providing an infinitely poignant listen and securing the song's place both as a fan favourite and the UK's fifth most likely song to be played at a funeral. To add to the song's pomp and melancholy grandeur, Queen were backed up by the National Philharmonic Orchestra.
"I love Who Wants To Live Forever simply because of the beautiful vocal melody, the way it continues to lift and lift as the song progresses," Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson told us. "The first time I heard this song, it made me cry."
5. Love Of My Life (A Night At The Opera, 1975)
A highly emotional staple of the band’s live shows past and present, Brian May plays harp on one lover’s plea to another not to walk away and desert them, reputedly written by Mercury for his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend Mary Austin.
One of Queen's most gorgeous, affecting numbers, the power of this this romantic ballad makes most sense when placed in the context of its live setting. Best served with an audience of thousands singing along, it says much about the band’s embarrassment of riches – and their propensity for the vaguely obtuse – that it was dropped from the set in the mid-80s despite becoming a treasured audience singalong at shows in the late ‘70s.
It soon made it back into the set, though, and is now best known and best loved for being the live Queen song – making the Live Killers cut the definitive version.
4. The Show Must Go On (Innuendo, 1991)
Essentially Freddie’s farewell, with May offering a measured solo and a suitably dramatic arrangement, The Show Must Go On was written as an enduring testimony to Mercury’s relentless drive. He delivers a grandstanding performance, despite May’s reservations about whether the frontman’s rapidly ailing health would allow him to even sing it. Downing a stiff vodka, Mercury assured him: “I’ll fucking do it, darling”.
"The Show Must Go On came from Roger and John playing the sequence, and I started to put things down," May said in 1994. "At the beginning, it was just this chord sequence, but I had this strange feeling that it could be somehow important, and I got very impassioned and went and beavered away at it. I sat down with Freddie, and we decided what the theme should be and wrote the first verse. It's a long story, that song, but I always felt it would be important because we were dealing with things that were hard to talk about at the time, but in the world of music, you could do it."
"To me, the most autobiographical line was: 'My make-up may be flaking but my smile still stays on,'" said Mercury's longterm partner Jim Hutton. "That was true. No matter how ill Freddie felt, he never grumbled to anyone or sought sympathy of any kind. It was his battle, no one else's, and he always wore a brave face against the ever-increasing odds against him."
3. Somebody To Love (A Day At The Races, 1976)
The most beautiful song that Freddie Mercury ever wrote was inspired by the late Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, and influenced by American gospel music. The vocal arrangements are stunning, with the multi-tracked voices of Mercury, May and Taylor recreating the sound of a gospel choir.
Mercury in particular dug deep in his lead vocal, the most soulful performance he ever recorded. Its thunderous vocal harmonies polished to perfection, Somebody To Love builds magnificently and offers unusual lyrical confessions of loneliness and insecurity.
“Freddie always said that Somebody To Love was better than Bohemian Rhapsody – a better piece of songwriting," Peter Hince told us. "He felt that this was his best-structured song. The studio version is really good, but the live version was something else. They took it to a different level. It had real power and guts on stage. And whenever Somebody To Love was in the set, it just seemed to be a better show. It had something that lifted the whole band. It’s a very special song.”
2. Don’t Stop Me Now (Jazz, 1978)
The second single to be released from Jazz, DSMN was a joyously delivered summation of Mercury’s life manifesto; fun, fun and more fun. A pumping, piano-driven rocker, it’s difficult to believe now that it charted poorly upon its release, making it to number nine in the UK but only number 86 in the US. Not that it harmed its success or longevity a jot – it’s been a staple of wedding, birthday and Bar Mitzvah playlists ever since.
There’s been speculation since its release that the song was an expression of Mercury embracing his sexuality head-on, unapologetically celebrating his newfound status as part of the furniture in the UK’s gay club scene.
The change of direction this song marked in Mercury’s songwriting – and lifestyle – wasn’t met with as much enthusiasm from the rest of the band. “It’s very much Freddie’s pop side,” Brian May told Georg Purvis of the song. “And I remember thinking, ‘I’m not quite sure if this is what we should be doing.’ I think there was also a feeling that lyrically it represented something that was happening to Freddie which we kind of thought was threatening him, and probably it was in a sense. But having said that, it’s full of joy and optimism.”
“It never fails to improve my mood,” Diamond Head’s Brian Tatler told us “’I’m having such a good time, I’m having a ball’, sings Mr Fahrenheit himself, and you know what? I totally believe him. The song keeps on climaxing until it finally lets out its last gasp of perfect harmony, Freddie’s ad-libbed vocals drifting happily away into the night, just like a cigarette after sex.”
1. Bohemian Rhapsody (A Night At The Opera, 1975)
Really, could the number one spot here ever really have gone to anything else? When doubt regarding airplay of Mercury’s celebrated ‘mock opera’ was aired, Freddie rightly retorted: “Of course they’ll play it, my dear. It’s going to be fucking huge.”
He was right, of course. It seems perverse now that anyone could ever have doubted the song’s world-conquering potential, but back in the mid-1970s, Queen were still mere mortals. Though Mercury loudly professed his belief that A Night At The Opera was the band’s best album to date, proudly asserting they’d used it to “go out, not restrict ourselves with any barriers and just do what we want to do,” there was still a level of nervousness within the Queen camp about its lead single.
“With Bohemian Rhapsody, we just thought it was a very strong song and so we released it,” Mercury told former Classic Rock journalist Harry Doherty upon its release in 1975. “But there were so many arguments about it. Somebody suggested cutting it down because the media reckons we have to have a three-minute single, but we want to put across Queen as songs. There is no point in cutting it. If you want to cut down Bohemian Rhapsody, it just won’t work.”
He was right again. While Bohemian Rhapsody wasn’t strictly where Queen found their feet, it was the moment the public finally caught up with them. Having ignored those warnings from onlookers, including friend and DJ Kenny Everett, Queen soon found themselves vindicated. Everett played it 14 times on his radio show that very same weekend. An American DJ followed suit and suddenly the record company felt compelled to release a song they thought was commercial suicide. It was the Christmas No.1 in 1975, stayed at the top of the charts for nine weeks and became the UK’s third best-selling single of all time, after Candle In The Wind ’97 and Do They Know It’s Christmas? which, let’s face it, don’t really count.
Cut to now and it’s become Queen’s most enduring masterpiece. More than 40 years after its release, its daring fusion of heavy metal, show-tune balladry and light opera remains the high watermark in Queen’s career, and a tribute to the band’s collective imagination and sheer bravado. It broke the mould in 1975, and no-one has even dared to try and compete with it since.
“Working with Queen, you can’t put it in normal terms,” the album’s producer Roy Thomas Baker once explained. “Queen can’t work like any normal group. They utilise each other’s talents to the fullest. The middle operatic section in Bohemian Rhapsody, for example, took about six to seven days to record in total. It was multi-tracked and there were so many harmonies that it takes quite a while to sort it out. It’s the same case with Brian May’s harmony guitar work. A lot of the band’s ideas are revolutionary,” he said. “You’ve got a band that has a relatively heavy rhythm section, is versatile musically and sings exceedingly well. The Queen situation is unique.”
“We’re just very different,” Mercury told Doherty at the time. “We do things in a style that is very different to anybody else. If people don’t like the songs we’re doing, we couldn’t give a fuck.”