❉ Producer Mike Moran on the greatest solo project a Queen member has yet released, which now doubles as a tribute to Caballé, one of the great soprano singers of all time.
This interview was conducted in September, intended to celebrate 30 years of a glorious crossover project. In the wake of Montserrat Caballé’s untimely death just before publication, We Are Cult would like to take this opportunity to celebrate both her great work and her great gift. Through Caballé and Freddie Mercury, many Queen fans were introduced to opera and classical music, and we hope newer and younger fans will find as much pleasure from their shared work as We Are Cult has done.
“I first got to know Freddie when I was the musical director for a musical called Time, produced by Dave Clarke” Mike Moran recalls. “It was on for two years in The Dominion, London. When we were making the album before the show, there was all kinds of people on there. There was Stevie Wonder, Cliff and then Dave said Freddie Mercury’s going to sing two songs on it, and I thought, that’s a bit of a coup. We did those two songs, we hit it off really well. It was the end of the A Kind of Magic tour, and he said, ‘I want to do a couple of things and do you want to work with me?’”
Moran accepted, as any would relish the chance of working with the bona fida iconoclast and chameleon, who had penned a diverse songbook that included Bohemian Rhapsody, Body Language, Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Princes of The Universe; all distinctly different, yet unified by Mercury’s gusto. Moran, a favourite session keyboardist of George Harrison’s and Lyndsey De Paul collaborator, was an inspired choice. “He said to me that ‘I’ve always wanted to sing The Great Pretender’, he’d not done any cover songs, so we recorded that in my studio. We co-produced that together, nice way to kick things off, and he said he’d had a year off with all this studio time, fancy doing some writing and see what happens? Also, at the end of this A Kind of Magic tour, Fred was interviewed on a Spanish arts programme and he was asked do you have any Spanish singers, and he said ‘Montserrat Caballé’, which kind of shocked everybody!”
La Movida Madrileña was the countercultural movement that had started in Madrid and had swept throughout much of Spain following General Franco’s death. From this point, many rock bands had reached international fame. Montserrat Caballé came a world away from that, a classical soprano more accustomed to Strauss and Mozart than Bowie or Prince. What did this stadium rocker see in Caballé?
“He knew she was one of the great soprano singers of all time. The promoter of that tour Pino Sallioco, an Italian guy, lived in Barcelona, like Montserrat. Carlos Caballé was contacted and told, ‘Look what Freddie Mercury has said about your sister!’. Freddie was contacted some time later and said to me ‘Montserrat wants to meet me. I’m off to the Ritz in Barcelona next week!’, so I said ‘Have a good time!’ and he said ‘You’re coming as well!'”.
As Moran points in this interview, this was a time before opera and pop crossed musical paths. Then again, Queen were no strangers to the gargantuan, to the pomposity of theatrical excesses. Their second album was a conceptual work of black and white shades, their fourth flaunted their operatic dalliances in its title and 1984’s It’s A Hard Life even borrowed the melody of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci! A slip into opera seemed a natural direction for Mercury, though a first encounter with Caballé was a daunting one.
“I reminded him we needed to cut a B-side” Moran says. “He went ‘Shit, I forgot!’. This was the time of the single and vinyl, we had to have a B-side. We didn’t have anything to put and we couldn’t use a Queen track. Exercises In Free Love was the first thing Fred and I did together. This was very late on in the edit. I said to him early in the morning, why not play some of that flashy stuff on the piano and I’ll see what we can put together. It was a little bit classical and a bit of messing about. Then [laughs as he says this] he started to sing in this kind of falsetto voice, which I thought sounded pretty good. We put it on the other side of The Great Pretender. He thought it was a hysterical as he thought he was trying to be a soprano!
“So, when we met Montserrat, and we thought, she might be a bit diva-like, we can play her this and it might break the ice. Might make her laugh, if you like. To cut a long story short, they got on like a house on fire, then Fred told her that Mike and I have done this thing, Fred pretending to be a soprano. She listened to it, and at the end was very, very quiet. We didn’t know what to think, then she said ‘I really like it. You wrote it for me!’. But of course we didn’t, she got kind of mixed up. Then she said that she would be playing at Covent Garden in three weeks and told me, ‘You will play’. So, there I was three weeks later playing before three thousand people!”
The minds of Caballé and Mercury had met, and the attraction was infectious. “She said can we do something together? So, that was cool. We, not really forgot about it, I carried on working on Fred’s solo album, before he told me he’d had two or three phone calls from Montserrat asking have we finished the song. So, we came up with an outline of Barcelona. The next time she came to London, she came in and sang her part. She told us it was fabulous and loved it, but why keep it a song? Why not an album? It took some time, about a year. That was it, we never finished Fred’s solo album, the rest was spent on the Barcelona album. Lots of people have covered the song, I’m doing a proper version with Russell Watson, though the one he did with Shaun Ryder was very funny [laughs]”.
Barcelona is, quite simply, the greatest solo project a Queen member has yet released, with a Mercury more inspired than any album since The Game. Lyrically and musically, Mercury is at the peak of his prowess, singing a prayer to Catalonia’s capital, commanding Japanese musical forms and vocally rises with the stars he sings to on Guide Me Home. It was a project that both men took very, very seriously. “The lyrics for all these things were quite complex” Moran admits. “Quite different. Fred and I were on this very intense writing mode. It was just full on, seven days a week sometimes. Halfway through, we were working on a track called The Fallen Priest and Fred says ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m all lyric’d out!’ We needed another idea. He said ‘You know Tim Rice?’, I did, so we called him. We explained the concept of the album to him. Tim being Tim of course, the next thing is, the fax machine is rattling out lyrics. He was involved in that track. It was so intense we did everything ourselves! When it came to Montserrat, we recorded with different ways. Microphoning with opera singers is one thing, she had to stand close to the mike if singing a soft song, but yes, you tend not to mike opera singers too closely!”
The weaving ways which Mercury and Caballé change from song to song is staggering, not least on the soulful and wilful How Can I Go On , which featured an essential contribution from one of Mercury’s bandmates. “John Deacon came in, we needed a bass player, Fred thought he’d ask him, so he did it and was delighted to play on it. Lovely guy and great playing. We were cautious about having two Queen members, then it would be a Queen album, though Roger Taylor sang some backing vocals on Barcelona and I played in his band The Cross later. I also played on Brian’s solo album. When they did Innuendo (1991), they used one of the first songs Freddie and I wrote for his solo album, All God’s People, they needed a track, Brian was on it anyway, so we put the other guys on and it was a Queen track. It’s a great Queen album”.
Innuendo is dark in the way Barcelona is bright and breezy. The intervening three years were not easy on Mercury, as his battles with AIDS grew more and more apparent. It’s a subject that is an inevitable one for this interview. “We knew something was amiss, sure, but it was after Barcelona that things were noticeably different. Roger and Brian and John would say that you’d go into denial, you don’t really want to know. Fred was such a larger than life character that we thought it would go away. Of course it didn’t and the sad thing is, because medicine changed an awful lot, if he’d gotten ill a year later, he’d probably still be alive. Fred was too early. But he was full of life, sang and worked until the day he couldn’t any more. He never gave less than a hundred per cent and did his best not to let it beat him”.
Caballé has sung the title track on several occasions, notably at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and live on German television in 2013. It is to Mercury’s credit that the sound of his voice over a recording still has vitality to it, even if the sight of Caballé singing the track on her own is incredibly forlorn. Thirty years after its release, Barcelona still has indelible power to it. “It hasn’t dated. Freddie’s fabulous on How Can I Go On. Barcelona’s probably my favourite of the tracks, I do like Japonais and some of the others, but from the view of a complete song, Barcelona is the one for me, but they’ve all got something different to them. It was before any crossovers, Russell Watsons and that got in the charts, so it was a ground-breaker. Also, the Spanish people took it to their hearts. The Catalans are fiercely proud people, the song put Barcelona on the map because of the title. It’s a bit of an anthem for them. God bless the football team, because whenever they win something it’s played all over!”
❉ The Barcelona album originally was released 10 October, 1988 on Polydor Records. It was reissued in 1992, and a newly orchestrated version released in 2012.
❉ Opera singer Montserrat Caballé died aged 85 on 6 October 2018. Her career spanned 50 years. She had stints with the Basel Opera and Bremen Opera before her international breakthrough in 1965 in Lucrezia Borgia at Carnegie Hall in New York. She went on to perform with the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera and Vienna State Opera, appearing opposite the likes of Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo.
❉ Eoghan Lyng is a writer, part-time English teacher and full-time lover of life.