Twenty-five years ago this week, iconic English rock maximalists Queen released one final classic album with their original lineup of Freddie Mercury, guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor.
Innuendo fell into fans’ laps like a saving grace following the hijacking of Deacon’s signature bass line from “Under Pressure,” the group’s 1981 collaborative single with David Bowie, for Vanilla Ice’s 1990 pop-rap mega-hit “Ice Ice Baby,” a song still dominating Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart by the time of the album’s release on February 5th, 1991. (“I first heard it in the fan club downstairs,” May said of “Ice Ice Baby” in the March 1991 issue of Q Magazine. “I just thought, ‘Interesting, but nobody will ever buy it because it’s crap.’ Turns out I was wrong.”)
Following the death of Queen’s dear friend Bowie from liver cancer just days after the release of his final album, Blackstar, this past January, some compared the record’s tragic trajectory to that of Innuendo, released just nine months before Mercury himself passed away, succumbing to AIDS-related pneumonia. Rumors of Mercury’s declining health were rampant given his sickly presentation during appearances in the late Eighties, particularly in 1990 at London’s Dominion Theater where the band — with an incredibly gaunt-looking Mercury in tow — was present to receive the Brit Award for “Outstanding Contribution to British Music,” an event that would become the last time the singer was seen in public. Yet rumors of his failing condition were persistently denied, with drummer Roger Taylor insisting to one reporter that he was “healthy and working” and Mercury quickly staving off any inquiries about his health during a rare on-air interview for BBC’s Radio One.
“Freddie found an amazing tranquility, and I never really heard him complain,” May later proclaimed in a 2011 BBC documentary on Queen, Days of Our Lives. “I remember we went out one night, and he had horrible problems with his leg and I think Freddie saw me looking at it and he was like, ‘Oh, Brian, do you want to see what it’s like?’ And he showed me, and he reacted to my face and said, ‘I’m really sorry — I didn’t mean to do that to you.’ I never heard him go, ‘This is really awful. My life is shit. I’m going to die.’ Never, never, never. He was an amazingly strong person.”
Much like Blackstar, to listen to Innuendo isn’t to be confronted with the sorrow of a man with one foot in the grave. Rather, the album comes off as the work of an artist staring sickness right in the eye and vowing to “keep working until I fucking drop,” as Mercury was once quoted as saying.
And from the sound of Innuendo, he meant exactly what he said. In many ways, Innuendo looked to be a triumphant continuance of the return to Queen’s early-Seventies hard-rock roots that began on 1989’s underrated The Miracle, albeit with some adventurous detours into Floydian psychedelia, early EDM and Smiths-ian romanticism. The album kicked off with its six-and-a-half-minute title cut, which — with its bolero intro, flamenco breakdown and operatic hard-rock outro — was immediately tagged as “Bohemian Rhapsody II.” But clearly the song was its own beast, inspired by Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” (a medley of the two songs was performed by Plant and the surviving members of Queen in 1992 at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium). It is also the only studio cut of the group’s to feature another guitarist: Steve Howe of Yes joined May in the song’s meticulously designed middle section.
“They played it and I was fucking blown away,” Howe told the British music magazine Prog in its March 2012 issue. “They all chimed in: ‘We want some crazy Spanish guitar flying around over the top. Improvise!’ I started noodling around on the guitar, and it was pretty tough. After a couple of hours, I thought: ‘I’ve bitten off more than I can chew here.’ I had to learn a bit of the structure, work out [what] the chordal roots were, where you had to fall if you did a mad run in the distance; you have to know where you’re going. But it got towards evening, and we’d doodled and I’d noodled, and it turned out to be really good fun. We have this beautiful dinner, we go back to the studio and have a listen. And they go: ‘That’s great. That’s what we wanted.'”
The heavy edge to the album, according to May in a 1991 promotional video on the making of Innuendo, was partially inspired by his listening to the likes of such late-Eighties guitar maestros as Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. But May’s playing on the record transcends bald-faced showmanship, providing a quintessential testament to how he and Mercury were two halves of a perfect whole on the frontlines of Queen, complemented by the excellent rhythm section of Deacon and Taylor.
“We’ve always been stronger together,” Roger Taylor stated in that promo video. “I feel very lucky that we’ve had those fantastic times. [Freddie] was just a tower of energy, really. Working with him, he always gets the best out of you and drives you, and inspires those around.”
“Headlong” originated from sessions for a scrapped Brian May solo album before he gave Mercury a go at the lead vocals and recognized how perfectly it worked as a Queen song. Deeper album cuts like “The Hitman” and “I Can’t Live With You” saw the band placing more emphasis on heavy guitars than arguably anything they had done since 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack. The return of the band’s glossy electric roar surely came as a refreshing salve for those who felt forced to endure Queen’s twists and turns through New Wave, R&B and plastic synthpop during the 1980s.
“We’ve always been fairly eclectic in our time,” Taylor said in 1991. “And we did branch out. But whenever we got a little too far out, people started to moan and groan a bit. And what I think people really wanted to see was sort of this return to thickly textured guitar, drums, bass and now I suppose keyboards lineup and those big harmonies. This album is really all about that.”
Meanwhile, other parts of the album saw the group working outside of their comfort zone, exploring realms of form and texture that served to punctuate Innuendo‘s lyrics, in which Mercury reckoned with his worsening condition. He was literally dying before his bandmates’ very eyes while they worked on the record, an experience that drives some of the most poignant moments here. Despite the dark humor in the singer’s delivery of the song, “I’m Going Slightly Mad” recounted Mercury’s battle with the AIDS-related dementia said to have set in during the band’s time in the studio.
“Delilah,” on the other hand, was a sweet farewell to his beloved cat of the same name.
“Just savor every mouthful and treasure every moment when the storms are raging around you,” Mercury sang on the ballad “Don’t Try So Hard,” which, buoyed by May’s chiming guitars and producer David Richards on a preset Korg M1, suggests the faint influence of late-Eighties Britpop.
The conga-driven synth ballad “These Are the Days of Our Lives” is Innuendo‘s most significant single, given that it was released on Mercury’s 45th birthday, and that its video marked the last time his fans were able to see the singer alive, as it was filmed in May of ’91 during the final stages of his battle with AIDS. A ballad in the vein of “Love of My Life,” it was a song that carried a significant amount of weight given the frailty of Mercury’s appearance in the black-and-white video, later compounded when unreleased color footage from the filming emerged in Days of Our Lives.
“The sicker he got, the more he seemed he needed to record,” explains Roger Taylor in the documentary. “To give himself something to do, some sort of reason to get up, so he would come in whenever he could. So really, it was quite a period of fairly intense work.”
After seeing how well-received Innuendo was in its first two weeks out, Mercury pressed the band to strike while the iron was hot and work on new material.
“Freddie at the time said, ‘Write me stuff, I know I don’t have very long,'” May proclaimed in Days of Our Lives. “‘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.'”
What resulted from those sessions was 1995’s Made in Heaven, highlighted by the synth-heavy “Mother Love,” recorded only weeks before Mercury’s death and featuring his proclamation that “I long for peace before I die.” However, given Innuendo‘s tone and context, Mercury’s true last word seemed to come in that album’s closing number, “The Show Must Go On.”
“Inside my heart is breaking,” Mercury sings on the song, a powerful goodbye only recently matched by Bowie’s “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” “My make-up may be flaking, but my smile still stays on.”