Queen’s ‘Innuendo’: An Appreciation

‘Innuendo’ can be viewed as a return to the band’s proggier roots, but with a flavour and ferocity unique to it and it alone.

“Queen were mightier than their legend, more comforting than their most popular anthems, and certainly feistier than the fifteen minutes they dedicated to conquering the Live Aid stages.”

 On 4 February 1991, Queen released their fourteenth studio album, Innuendo. With this album, it became clear that became clear that this was not a band aching to return to arenas, hurling themselves out of stadium rock and plunging back into labyrinthian studio soundscapes reminiscent of their earlier work. From the opening drum roll to the ghostly falsetto that closed the album on an ongoing, ominous note, Innuendo presented a band diving into their works as if theirs weren’t the only lives that depended on it.

All four members had more to lose than their patience. John Deacon and Brian May were reconciling their career momentum against the importance of their marriages; drummer Roger Taylor’s personal life was becoming more revelatory the more he sang about it; and Freddie Mercury’s health – once a subject of conjecture – was becoming harder to deny. Where once stood a garrulous, even gladiatorial, figure, now walked an impish, gaunt doppelganger, wearing a face even more wretched than the jester who leered at the world during the Sahara-dry I’m Going Slightly Mad.  Caught between the crucibles of their crusade, Deacon, May and Taylor vowed to keep their singer floating on the energy of their work. Music, the passion that had united all four of them together twenty years earlier, now stood as the armour by which the band would carry on working together.

“As soon we realised Freddie was ill,” May confessed; “we clustered around him like a protective shell. We were lying to everyone, even our own families, because he didn’t want the world intruding on his struggle. He used to say, ‘I don’t want people buying our fucking records out of sympathy.’ We all became very close. We grew up a lot.”

No one outside of their orbit was to know of his ailment, and the band pursued this philosophy as one by which they carried the brand. Fred Mandel – the keyboardist who had performed the intro to Deacon’s piercing I Want To Break Free – personally rang the bassist to ask about Mercury’s frail appearance. Gallant to the last, Deacon declined to tell Mandel, and the synth artist left the phone call every bit as ignorant as he had been. Mandel had collaborated with the band during the fertile sessions that led to The Works, but the buoyancy that crept into their 1984 comeback now sounded like the work of an entirely different outfit.

Queen (1989). Video shoot for the “Scandal” single release.

Innuendo can be viewed as a return to the band’s proggier roots: An uncompromising record more in keeping with the experimental nature of their earlier work, but with a flavour and ferocity unique to it and it alone. The Miracle had shown that the band could collaborate as one song-writing unit and that they weren’t Mercury’s foils as many had assumed during the quartet’s appearance at Live Aid. Rather, the sequence showcased a bravado that was common to all four members, regardless of whether they sang or not.

The buoyant levity – once a mainstay in the group’s wheelhouse – was now deemed passé for a band enduring great pain and typically Deacon (traditionally the in-house doyen of pop) contributes little to nothing on the lyrical front. May, who’d opened himself to the failings mortality offered him on the liturgical Who Wants To Live Forever, was in a better haven creatively, than Mercury, whose celebrations of earthly delights switched from the many wonders the world bestowed on him with The Miracle’s dazzling title track, to an ode to his beloved tabby cat Delilah.

From Ride The Wild Wind to The Hitman, sadness enters the proceedings, fired by the guttural honesty of the raucous drums behind them. Bijou didn’t use any drums (it barely uses vocals, come to think of it), but demonstrated a guitar that was all the lonelier without them. And then there was The Show Must Go On, a daring soundscape every bit as theatrical in 2021 as it must have been thirty years ago. What’s remarkable is not just that Mercury found the strength to perform such nakedly vulnerable work, but that he was able to conjure up some of the rawest and most detailed vocals that he ever committed to tape.

In the context of Innuendo, the aforementioned Delilah seems whimsical and lightweight, but between the pillars of despair that radiate the outlet, the frothy vignette offers listeners a momentary cushion of respite. Thereafter, the ominous mood kicks back, never to lighten again. All God’s People (a Mike Moran co-write culled from a solo Mercury session) cautions listeners to a world divided by riches and rule; Don’t Try So Hard, a piano painting decorated with a luxurious production design, asks listeners to pay attention to the prescience of the here and now; and then there’s Headlong, a rollicking guitar stomper, now accompanied with a video demonstrating Mercury’s more angular appearance with piercing, polished frames.

In that song, the fortitude that carried Queen into more uncertain territories is momentarily discarded for a furious explosion of sexual metaphors: “When a red hot man meets a white hot lady-(Hoop-diddy-diddy, hoop-diddy-do); Soon the fire starts raging, gets you more than half crazy (Hoop-diddy-diddy, hoop-diddy-do)..”

With a glam-metal arrangement, the drums – shifting from decorative to destructive – lets loose, and pushes for that moment of percussive glory, thrusting Mercury’s vocals to the apex of their excitement. Headlong qualifies as one of the heavier songs in the band’s canon, and May – purportedly the song’s chief writer – made sure to include it in the solo set in years to follow. Attention is mostly devoted to the guitar sound, piercing through the chorus with static, shrill abandon, but Mercury – never one to walk away from a challenge – offers a timbre every bit as thunderous and certainly more fluid than the riff that centres the song. Sex fills his nostrils, anger comes from his voice, and the song revels in a carnal, creative synergy uncommonly sultry for a band now in their forties. By contrast, the more collected I Can’t Live With You (the album’s other rocker) sounds little more than a pop number.

And then there’s the title track, a braggadocious opener that exhibited one of Mercury’s more commanding vocal lines. An energetic blend of instruments, the crashing guitars that push the song forward make way for something a little more pastoral sounding. Enter Yes maestro Steve Howe to furnish listeners with a flamenco solo, every bit as exhilarating as the Red Special that had been the band’s choice of focus.

“I was in a cafe in Montreux,” Howe recalled in an interview with Strange Brew’s Jason Barnard. “I’d been working with my friend Paul Sutin in Geneva and I think I’d driven there and I was in a cafe – a guy went by and he looks at me and goes ‘Steve!’ You know, he comes in and goes, ‘We’re just down the road in the studio.’ Of course I knew the studio as it was where we’d made Going for the One and so I said, ‘The guys are in the studio? Oh great! Come in.’ By the time I’d got there they’d schemed up something so ‘Hi Steve. Sit down…’ Freddie was great – and Brian [May] and Dave Richards, the engineer at the time. So, basically, we were sitting there and they said, ‘We want to play you the album.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve got time. Play me the album.’ But they saved Innuendo until the end. So they played Innuendo and when it finished they said, ‘You know that middle bit was… what Brian was doing?’ I said, ‘Yeah. Lovely, lovely, lovely.’ They said, ‘Well we want you to play on that.’ ‘What’s that? You don’t need anything else,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it there?’ ‘No, no, no. What we hear is a bit of Paco de Lucia.’ ‘Well, look, I’m a normal guy – I’m not Paco de Lucia.’ ‘But you can go there. You can improvise.’

May, nominally the in house lead guitarist, seemed undeterred by Howe’s appearance, personally pencilling the title track as a personal favourite: “I think Innuendo was one of those things which could either be big – or nothing. We had the same feelings about Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s a risk, because a lot of people say “It’s too long, it’s too involved, and we don’t want to play it on the radio.” I think that could be a problem, in which case it will die. Or it could happen that people say “This is interesting and new and different”, and we’ll take a chance.”

May, who had lost his father in the 1980s, had grown accustomed to addressing mortality, and coming in the wake of Mercury’s illness, was stirred to creative fertility. Always the most philosophical songwriter, the guitarist composed The Show Must Go On, demonstrating the band’s unrelenting nerve to keep on keeping on. From delirium to depravity, Mercury essayed numerous emotions over twelve towering tracks, before returning to cosier territories on Taylor’s lyrical opus, These Are The Days Of Our Lives.

The video, a drab aesthetic of black and white silhouettes, is nonetheless one of their more colourful, and certainly their most revelatory. A frail Mercury stands smiling, turning to the bandmates that perform beside him. Deacon, the bandmate most badly affected by the singer’s death, is focused on his instrument, as is May (who recorded his segment separately from the others.) And then there’s Taylor, the song’s architect and lyricist, working his hands on percussion instruments, as had been his trade since University. He turns as if to join Mercury with a harmony, before the reality overwhelms him, and he bows his head with permissive persuasion. The vocalist, the most composed of the quartet, takes pride on the final valediction (“I still love you”), before exiting from that most fatal of stage lefts.

No effects, no extras, nothing more than four men bidding farewell to one of their partners.

Determined to use what months he had left, Mercury spent months in Montreux laying some vocal performances for which the trio could later complete. On 22 November 1991, Mercury elected to issue a statement about his health, and two days later, he died at his home in Kensington. He was forty-five years old.

John Lennon, the Beatle Mercury eulogised on the beautiful Life Is Real in 1982, foretold a world where fame and legend only mattered “when you’re six foot in the ground.” Queen, once a hard sell to the American palette, now enjoyed a commercial second wind when Bohemian Rhapsody appeared on the Wayne’s World soundtrack. Radiohead, Britpop’s very own stadium proggers, released their debut in 1993, and earmarked a new movement based on art-rock proclivities. With Anthology, The Beatles (like Queen, a man down) put whatever differences aside to complete some of the unfinished recordings their founder had started nearly two decades earlier. David Gilmour and Nick Mason took a similar path in 2014, by extending Richard Wright’s sound paintings into an opus that floated on the endless river of the Pink Floyd canon. The surviving Queen members seemed happy to follow a similar route, first by way of a Tribute Concert, and a canonical postscript of repurposed Mercury recordings, Made In Heaven. 

“After Fred died, he [Deacon] strongly believed that was the end of Queen,” band confidante Peter Hince told this writer. “He was not especially enthusiastic doing Fred’s tribute concert – which I felt was generally done in bad taste for many reasons. I came out of retirement and helped John at the rehearsals and at the show. I did it out of respect for both Freddie and John.”

In the years since he’s retired from the band, Deacon has been spotted at the occasional We Will Rock You performance. Amidst the musicals, film bios, video games and ill-advised remix team-ups that drew May and Taylor back into the public eye, the pair decided to re-option the brand name with Robbie Williams, Paul Rodgers and then Adam Lambert at the forefront. Although admirable, the duo’s eagerness to carry the act into the 2010s was seen as an act of betrayal in certain quarters, and any desires to celebrate the group on their golden anniversary has been cheapened by two septuagenarians crackling from the sparks lit by four younger artists. Much better to consider No One But You (Only The Good Die Young), the trio’s treatise of despair in a country mourning the death of their adopted princess, as a farewell to Queen.

No matter how they may wish to present themselves, May and Taylor aren’t Queen. They’re barely Smile, the parochial trio they formed with Tim Staffell. Queen were the hybrid of Deacon’s pop flair, Taylor’s thunder, Mercury’s charisma and May’s more earnest approach to rock music. Remove one aspect from the equation, and much of the splendour, sex and success of the outfit would disappear.

Queen were mightier than their legend, more comforting than their most popular anthems, and certainly feistier than the fifteen minutes they dedicated to conquering the Live Aid stages. However pompous they emerged in 1971, they had more than earned their regal status twenty years later, and with Innuendo, the band emerged with a send-off that was even more touching than posthumous effort Made In Heaven. In a world dictated by tradition, superstition, false religion, Queen drew attention to themselves by delivering an album that stands comfortably in the same breath as gargantuan epics Queen II and A Day At The Races.

❉ ‘Innuendo’ was released on 4 February 1991. A 2011 Remaster was released 5 September 2011. ‘Innuendo’ was re-released on vinyl on 25 September 2015 by Virgin EMI Records and Hollywood Records, alongside all of Queen’s other studio albums. Listen to ‘Innuendo’ on Apple Music and Spotify.

❉  A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Eoghan Lyng’s ‘U2: Every Album, Every Song’ is published by Sonicbond Publishing and available to buy from Burning ShedFollow him on TwitterVisit his homepage. 

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