By 1990, the hounds of Britain’s tabloid press were hot on Freddie Mercury’s trail. Day and night, the Queen frontman’s Garden Lodge home in West London crawled with reporters, his increasingly rare outings dogged by shutter-clicks and thrusted microphones.
His pursuers had a common goal: to confirm the most open secret in rock’n’roll, that Mercury was HIV positive, had AIDS – and was dying. But for now, the press would be forced to seize on crumbs of evidence for their splashes – most recently, Mercury’s gaunt appearance at that February’s Brit Awards – while Brian May parried them with the party line: “He definitely hasn’t got AIDS, but I think his wild rock‘n’roll lifestyle has caught up with him.”
In an age before social media, the silence from the Queen camp was absolute. Yet the band’s public denials of Mercury’s worsening condition were at odds with their musical output of the era, with the following year’s Innuendo album all but admitting the singer’s diagnosis, while diving deeper into his headspace than any tell-all interview.
“We were dealing with things that were hard to talk about at the time,” May told Guitar World, “but in the world of music, you could do it.”
Recorded at London’s Metropolis Studios and the Mountain facility in Montreux, Innuendo was far too varied to be glibly cast as ‘the AIDS album’. In Queen’s grand tradition, these twelve songs pinballed between genres – the title track alone offered vaudeville drum rolls, flamenco guitars and a screaming hard-rock solo from May – and were inspired by themes as disparate as Roger Taylor’s cars (Ride The Wild Wind) and Mercury’s calico cat (Delilah).
The effervescent I Can’t Live Without You and the foot-down Headlong (a song originally mooted for May’s solo career) hardly sounded like the work of a dead man walking.
“The last thing he wanted,” said Taylor of Mercury’s defiant last stand, “was to draw attention to any kind of weakness or frailty. He didn’t want pity."
Even so, at least three of Innuendo’s key songs offered a window into Mercury’s mindset as the sand ran out. The singer’s own I’m Going Slightly Mad paired an itchy, haunted verse to a lighter chorus, with an incongruous Hawaiian slide-guitar solo and gallows humour metaphors that stopped the vocal from becoming too bleak (‘This kettle is boiling over/I think I’m a banana tree’).
Chiefly written by May – but with Mercury setting the lyrical tone and insisting that the bleakly ironic working title remained – The Show Must Go On was darker still, led by the doomy chop of strings and a wretched lyric (‘Empty spaces/What are we living for?’).
Sweeter – if no less affecting – was Taylor’s These Are The Days Of Our Lives, the drummer yearning for blissful formative years when ‘the bad things in life were so few’.
The gulf between those times and the here-and-now was starkly underlined by the US single’s monochrome video, with Mercury rail-thin and rooted to the spot due to the stubborn lesion on his foot, but still giving a sparkle as he looked deep into the lens for the whispered pay-off: ‘I still love you.’
The feeling was evidently mutual, at least in the UK, where both the Innuendo single and album reached No.1 without a sniff of promotion from the singer or the band setting foot on a stage.
“I think it’s the best one for quite a long time,” May told Vox. “There’s nothing I’m embarrassed about. Often you put out an album and you think ‘But I wish we’d done this…’. This one, I feel quite happy about, and I can listen to it without any problems. I like it a lot. I think it’s nicely complex and nicely heavy, and there’s a lot of invention on there.”
Queen had nothing left to prove. With Innuendo a worthy swansong, the obvious move for a man in Mercury’s position would be to retreat from view, make his arrangements and run down the clock in peace. But as Taylor reflected in the Days Of Our Lives documentary, the singer saw his numbered days as a chance for a last late burst of creativity, whether to assure his own legend or arm his bandmates with material for the road ahead.
“The sicker he got, the more he seemed he needed to record,” the drummer recalled. “To give himself something to do, some reason to get up, so he would come in whenever he could. So really, it was quite a period of fairly intense work.”
May had a similar take on events. “Freddie just said, ‘I want to go on working, business as usual, until I fucking drop. That’s what I want. And I’d like you to support me, and I don’t want any discussion about this’.”
In the early months of 1991, the Mountain Studios were the backdrop for scenes that now sound impossibly moving, Mercury holding himself upright against the console, emboldening himself with vodka, pitting his ebbing talent against the ticking clock as he tracked moments like You Don’t Fool Me, his final songwriting credit on A Winter’s Tale, and his last recorded vocal with Mother Love.
“He never actually finished that,” May told Guitar World. “He said, ‘Oh, Brian, I can’t do any more. I’m dying here’. It’s incredible, he never seemed to let it get him down. He was always full of humour and enthusiasm. He would make jokes about it, really.
“At the time,” May continued, “strangely enough, we developed such a great closeness as a band that [the last sessions] were quite joyful times. There was this cloud hanging over, but the cloud was outside the studio, it wasn’t inside. I have really great memories of those times.”
Mercury’s sanguine outlook, reflected the guitarist, gave him an “invincible” air. But it couldn’t last forever. In early November 1991, Mercury stopped taking his AIDS medication; on the 22nd of that same month, he gazumped the gutter press by releasing a statement confirming his condition.
“Following the enormous conjecture in the press over the last two weeks, I wish to confirm: I have been tested HIV-positive and have AIDS. I felt it correct to keep this information private to date in order to protect the privacy of those around me. However, the time has now come for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth. I hope everyone will join with me, my doctors and all those worldwide in my fight against this terrible disease.”
Two days later – while a media circus swarmed outside Garden Lodge – Mercury passed away, the cause of death cited as bronchial pneumonia. A small ceremony at a West London crematorium followed in short order, the singer’s coffin disappearing to the strains of Aretha Franklin. And although the devastated survivors had a hectic aftermath – from the star-dusted tribute concert at to May’s solo single, Driven By You – they were left with an unfillable gulf.
“Apart from the grief of losing someone so close,” said May, “suddenly your whole way of life is destroyed. All that you have tried to build up for the last twenty years is gone.”
As an emerging solo artist, May enjoyed solid UK hits with Driven By You and The Miracle-era offcut Too Much Love Will Kill You. But the guitarist would soon become reacquainted with the sharp end of the music business, taking his underrated 1992 solo album Back To The Light to the US for an ignominious tour where venues that could never have contained Queen were sprinkled with empty seats.
Even so, he appeared to have drawn a line in the sand, insisting “my role now is to be me”, and maintaining in an interview with Virgin Radio that “there cannot be a Queen without Freddie.” But perhaps there was still enough Freddie to sustain them.
In the spring of 1994 came the early inklings of the project that would become 1995’s Made In Heaven, as the three survivors began combing the vaults for sunken treasure. The guitarist’s memory that he had “delved deep” was no exaggeration, with The Game-era material like It’s A Beautiful Day gathered alongside the vocal parts laid down in Montreux earlier that decade. All of it, stressed May, was “very precious stuff”.
So began the emotive “jigsaw” process of turning these pencil sketches into fully orchestrated songs.
“There’s tracks like I Was Born To Love You,” noted the guitarist in the Days Of Our Lives documentary, “which was never a Queen track – that was a solo track, which Freddie did very hurriedly. So we stripped everything away, and lovingly, cherishingly re-edited all his vocals. I spent months and months piecing together our bits to make it sound like we were all in the studio together.
"I’m very fond of Mother Love. And it has a little piece of Goin’ Back, which was the very first thing that Freddie ever sang in the studio. I wrote to Carole King to ask her permission, and she was delightful, she was so supportive.
“The whole album is a fantasy,” May continued, “because it sounds like the four of us are there all together, having fun and making the album. Of course, for most of the time, when you’re listening, that’s not the case. It’s built to sound that way. And a lot of love went into that.”
“Brian and I, certainly, felt that we knew what Freddie would have been thinking,” added Taylor in the same documentary. “We felt like he was almost in the corner of the room. We sort of got there. And I was very pleased with the result.”
Measured in sales figures alone, there could be little doubt that theQueen hardcore – and more than a few fairweather fans – approved of the survivors’ labour of love.
Released on November 6, 1995, Made In Heaven topped the UK album chart, marching towards multi-platinum sales and spitting out five Top 20 UK singles. Stripped of context, few connoisseurs would argue this was the strongest album in Queen’s auspicious catalogue. But there were moments here well-worthy of the brand, including the neck-tingling opening salvo of It’s A Beautiful Day, the title track’s rousing balladry and the impossibly moving A Winter’s Day.
“The last album is one of the most ridiculously painful experiences, creatively, I have ever had,” May told Radio 1. “But the quality’s good, partly because we did have those arguments. Whether it’s healthy for life or not is another matter.”
Curiously, given the praise shortly to heaped onto The Beatles’ cut-and-shut Free As A Bird single, press reaction to the album was somewhat muted, with NME’s memorably virulent review focused on the ethics of the project (“Made In Heaven is vulgar, creepy, sickly and in dubious taste”).
In truth – and whatever your take on the album’s musical merits – anecdotal evidence all points to the fact that this last hurrah was exactly what Mercury had hoped for in Montreux.
“Freddie at the time said, ‘Write me stuff, I know I don’t have very long,’” explained May in the Days Of Our Lives documentary. “‘Keep writing me words, keep giving me things, I will sing, I will sing. And then you do what you like with it afterwards and finish it off’.”
By completing Made In Heaven, then, the Queen survivors had fulfilled their leader’s last will and testament in the band’s inimitable style, rather than leave it to industry vultures to crudely reanimate and repackage the sweepings. Perhaps just as important, they had exorcised the demons and drawn a line under the original band’s extraordinary first run.
As May remembered of the process: “You were just listening to Freddie’s voice twenty-hours a day and that can be hard. You suddenly think, ‘Oh God, he’s not here, why am I doing this?’ But now I can listen to Made In Heaven and it’s just joy – and I feel like it was the right album to finish up on…”
Header image credit: Corvus / CC BY-SA