One golden glance of what should be…
Get me to sing anything, write me anything and I will sing it and I will leave you as much as I possibly can.
— Freddie Mercury to Queen.
or Don McLean, “the day the music died” was when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper were killed in a 1959 plane crash. For us children of the 70s and 80s, that day was 24 November 1991, with the death of Freddie Mercury.
Made In Heaven is the last Queen album to feature all four original members – Freddie Mercury, Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor. Released posthumously in November 1995, four years after Freddie’s death, it is something so tragic and beautiful and creepy and intriguing and criminal and sublime…
Queen’s remaining band members, and producers David Richards and Josh Macrae, take unfinished tracks, or completed tracks intended for other purposes, and finish or repurpose them to fill out this album. Make no mistake: Made In Heaven is not “filler” – it’s a full-fledged Queen record – 4 sides, 13 tracks – with all the soaring production and insatiable spirit inherent in every Queen release; it was Freddie’s intent to pour out product with his heart and soul and final flesh, so I’m sure his dying wishes are being fulfilled by Queen… yet there is something disturbing that underpins the wonder of this particular studio magic.
The fact that you CAN do something – SHOULD you?
Yes, says the fickle stock market. Yes, says the avaricious record company. Yes, say the lost Queen fans, anxiously walking the Earth like Jules from PULP FICTION, tremulously scanning the skies for a sliver of anything Queen to ease their aching hearts.
Thus – Made In Heaven, with its triple-decked guitars and gladiatorial choirs, and some strange inclusions that make us wonder if the technology envelope was pushed just a little too far…
These are not verse-chorus-verse-chorus songs – not that much of Queen’s best work ever is – but even at this elegiac juncture, the band did not dumb it down for the sake of completing tracks or reaching “commercial” demographics. These songs thrum with a life of their own, an ethereal thread weaving its way through the album – a pondering of life and death – spiraling through starways of aural ecstasy, finding their place in a universe suddenly grown much colder.
It’s a Beautiful Day. Originally recorded in 1980, Freddie’s piano underpins this composition (which is flooded with new string pads by John Deacon), opening the album on an optimistic note.
Made in Heaven opens with crying Brian May harmony guitars. Freddie’s voice takes up the soaring, in his vaunted high register. Spacey sounds, gigantic drums, treated with stardust and May’s signature harmony guitars carving pentatonic pentacles passim.
Originally from Freddie’s solo album Mr. Bad Guy, with much less rock bombast, the original 1985 video was themed more along hell than heaven, showing Freddie atop a mountain dressed in red flaming cloak and lycra, overlooking a crowd of red-lycra denizens seething in chaos.
Let Me Live. Gospel! The signature Queen harmonies now sound like they’re a bunch of big black chicks wearing purple robes. Completed in 1995, a simple piano arrangement with big-black-chick choruses, Freddie taking the first verse, Roger the second and Brian the third. Inspiring to hear them all one after the other – all such great voices, overshadowed by Freddie’s crystalline timbre over the course of their careers. Reaching #9 on the UK charts, Let Me Live is a grand, bittersweet single – that falls into that unfortunate category of Lame-ass Queen Videos.
The first category of Queen videos is Cool, Innovative, Funny – all those that feature the band before tragedy befell them (Bohemian Rhapsody, Save Me, Invisible Man, I Want To Break Free, The Miracle) – while the Lame-Ass category is post-Freddie, showing unrelated people doing unrelated things, and/or interspersing stock footage of live Queen (You Don’t Fool Me, My Life Has Been Saved).
The only exceptions to both these categories would be Under Pressure (recorded by Bowie and Queen in 1981 while Freddie was very much alive, yet touring commitments precluded either act from making a video, which ends up a frustrated mashup of frustrated stock footage. The other end of the spectrum is No One But You, a song recorded post-Freddie by Queen’s remaining band members (May, Deacon, Taylor), with a video featuring the three in a recording studio, in their last appearance together (Deacon would retire from Queen after this appearance).
Mother Love is Freddie’s last ever vocal performance. After he took a rest from this recording session, he never returned to the studio, and Brian May had to sing the last verse. That’s how up-to-the-line they took it! And yet when you hear this slow-paced, poignant ballad, you would never think this is a man who is just – about – to – die. This is that creepiness mingled with sadness. There is amazing art, and there is that human element that makes us wonder about the men behind the art and what they went through to create it.
The ghostly outro features samples from a live recording, studio sessions, and Freddie trailing off with a lead vocal he did for Carole King in 1972. There is a sample of what sounds like a cassette tape fast-forwarding at high speed, which is apparently a “few milliseconds of every Queen song ever recorded.” Unless this fact was made public, no one would ever have known; imagine the time and care taken to produce that effect, which is really nothing special – it truly just sounds like a cassette tape fast-forwarding at high speed – a classic case of “diminishing returns,” i.e. whether that effect was included or not, it makes no difference to the song, so all that effort was expended for no reason.
The very last sound we hear is a baby crying. I like to think that Queen is telling us, this being Freddie’s swansong, that for every death, there is another birth; maybe that there is another Freddie out there somewhere, even as we mourn… Not talking reincarnation or souls or religion, rather, that all our molecules keep circulating in this universe, and if one man, one organism, can possess that makeup of unique cells, then surely another will…
John Deacon writes, and plays all guitars and keyboards, on My Life Has Been Saved, a nice easy rock track that Freddie sings in a casual lilt; feels like late Queen, not straying too far from Innuendo.
Most of the songs on this album feature some kind of string pad, which is a product of the times, but which dilutes from the essence of rawness that early Queen reveled in. (Their first seven albums – from 1973’s Queen to 1978’s Jazz – all boasted the legend, “No synthesizers!”)
There is also a 1989 B-Side version of My Life (for the single Scandal), a much fuller, thicker rock sound, with the full band performing on it (and there’s still that annoying string pad).
I Was Born to Love You is re-recorded for this album; originally recorded in 1984 with piano and Annoying String Pads by Mercury for his solo album Mr. Bad Guy. The video is a mashup of the original video made by Mercury in 1985, intercut with QUEEN AT WEMBLEY 1986 (released on video 1990).
There is also a version performed by May (singing intro vocals and playing a 12-string guitar) and Taylor (singing lead vocals). Freddie gave of himself as much as he humanly could in his final hours, but re-recordings like this – lifted from Mercury’s solo efforts – seem a little tacky.
As good as the re-worked finished product is, when Freddie gave his bandmates carte blanche to do what they could with his final vocal output, did he foresee them ransacking his solo material and re-tailoring it as band product? No source I know is close enough to Queen to tell us the inside truth.
Heaven for Everyone was originally recorded in 1988 by Roger Taylor for his band The Cross (album Shove It), with Freddie guesting on lead vocals, now re-worked for Heaven. An easy rock smoothie (with those godawful string pads everywhere!), this first posthumous single from Made In Heaven charted at #2 in the UK.
The video features clips from Georges Méliès’ innovative silent masterpiece A TRIP TO THE MOON (and other silent-film “space” footage).
Too Much Love Will Kill You. Well, there’s the Freddie Mercury/Queen version here, recorded for 1989’s The Miracle album (omitted for legal disputes), which will make you weep…
… and there’s the Brian May version – which will kill you. Because May wrote it about the dissolution of his first marriage to Chrissie Mullen and his passion for his new love, Anita Dobson.
A friend commented on how Freddie could take any of the band’s songs and make them sound like Freddie wrote them – but not this one. Brian bleeds his soul onto the vinyl, and there is no one else who could perform this song with such rending emotion.
To me, this is the jewel of the album – and I cannot listen to it without weeping inconsolably for my own losses in life – but it obviously affected a lot more people in the same way, as it won the 1997 Novello Award for Best Song Musically and Best Song Lyrically. (Great Minds Mourn Alike!)
The Heaven version features screaming electric guitar, while Brian would rearrange the song for his 1992 album Back To The Light and employ an acoustic solo, which will tear your heart out.
You Don’t Fool Me opens with a Queen choral signature, then meanders in a completely different direction, funky bassline and hypnotic thumpa-thumpa. Sounding very 90’s-British, it’s not very Queen. Not a bad song – for most bands, probably even a great song – but in the hands of Queen, a wasted opportunity, even with Brian sprinkling it with tasty Red Special nuggets.
The song needs to only be heard, not seen, as the boring video of angst-ridden teens in a disco flurry distracts from the arrangement and excellent playing.
By Brian May’s account, this track started from nothing, producer Richards editing together shreds of Freddie’s vocals over a piece of music, which Brian, Roger and John Deacon then added their parts to later, to create a complete song. Again, a work of art accomplished, but at what cost to Freddie’s legacy and final wishes?
A Winter’s Tale. Another song written completely by Freddie on the cusp of his non-existence, apparently while looking out his hospital windows at Lake Geneva. Unlike many people who know they are not long for this world, at least Freddie was ensconced in the industry he loved, and he and his band had the means to create as much product as possible before the end.
Relaxed 6/8 tempo, flooded with smooth string pads (of course) and audaciously credited as a Christmas song, probably because of the intrusion of those jazz chords.
This is effectively where Made In Heaven ends, because the remaining “songs” seem like filler. Freddie’s final words in this song seem to herald a closing, a man going to his rest, hallucinating as the last sparks of his dying mind haywire into oblivion: “Am I dreaming? Am I dreaming? Oh, it’s bliss.”
Okay, we can forgive and accept It’s a Beautiful Day (Reprise) as a final track, a bookend, where Freddie repeats the optimism of the opener, which then scalds into a heavy rock outro that somehow reflects the rage of dying when you haven’t finished your run at Life. As the band reaches maximum overdrive, under the bombast, we hear the unmistakable I-IV arpeggios of Seven Seas Of Rhye – a song from Queen II (1974) about a god in his prime, (“Fear me, you lords and lady preachers / I descend upon your Earth from the skies…”)
And then Beautiful Day ends – abruptly – as Life does. One millisecond, “You” is still you. The next, “You” is lost to the Cosmos…
Yeah. Dumb. It’s a 2-second “track” of Freddie singing the word, “yeah.” Lifted from the intro to Don’t Try Suicide (album The Game, 1980), it’s nothing new. It’s nothing exciting. It’s nothing. Dumb, yeah?
OR – is it a sly tip to depressed fans about Freddie’s death, or people with AIDS, not to commit suicide? Well, Queen, can you BE any more cryptic to people on the edge? Or is it saying, “yeah” go ahead and suicide? Yeah, like I said, dumb.
Then there’s 13 aka Track 13, a 22-minute experiment by producer Richards that doesn’t add anything to the Queen legacy, except loads of Annoying String Pads and confusion among fans (due to its inclusion in some formats, omission in others, a few seconds of it looping on some releases; the indecision on whether it should be considered a triptych with the previous two songs or a standalone track, or whether to just cry over the wasted space that might have been used for a final interview or some rehearsal tapes or a never-before-released live track).
An inauspicious end to a worthy final album from Queen. If heaven sounds like all these string pads, please, someone bitchslap some of those cherubim, or whoever’s leaning on that Ensoniq synth.
In A Kind Of Magic (1986), Freddie sings: “One dream, one soul / One prize, one goal / One golden glance of what should be / It’s a kind of magic…” That’s what Made In Heaven truly is – merely one fleeting glimpse, a shifting-sand conglom of eclectic dynamism. It can be regarded as a desperate clutching at the last embers of what made a man vital in his youth, or as going out in a blaze of supernova. We Queen fans know it is the latter.
“The day the music died” will be different for each generation, but was Don McLean correct that the music could die?
As long as the music rings on in myriad forms of media, in the minds of fans, in the hands and throats of musicians, whenever we turn it on, or reminisce about it, or perform it to the best of our ability, we keep alive that golden glance of what should be…