By October 1988, I had been a Queen fan for twelve years. I was 21, I loved music more than life itself, and I suppose I was generally perceived as one of those massive, so called die-hard fans. To this day I don’t know what ‘die hard’ means, but I know what ‘massive fan’ is, and I was certainly that. I was definitively that, and I remain so all these years later.
I had no idea what to expect when I heard that our Freddie had recorded songs with an opera singer I’d never heard of. That music was not part of my world at all, nor part of Freddie’s either, as far as I knew at the time. I thought he only liked Aretha Franklin, Hendrix and Chopin.
Firstly, I wondered how Freddie had come to hear about this enigmatic lady called Caball… Cab-a-elle… Cab-ally… Cab… - (every other tv and radio host pronounced her name a different way) - and then I wondered, and worried, if this might signal the end of Queen. Surely not? But possibly so. I wondered if there might have been terrible ructions behind the scenes at Queen HQ, as Freddie demanded time out to work with the Spanish one. As far as I knew, the band was working hard on the project that would later emerge as ‘The Miracle’ album, so how could he do both?
Or, worse still, was this rather strange – some might say outlandish - venture going to be the end of Freddie’s reputation forever? How could even Freddie Mercury recover from this, if it all went chest upwards? In my mind’s eye was a startling image of Freddie on stage at Covent Garden as some mercurial butterfly concoction, next to Madame Caballe, in something that just didn’t quite work, and then the next morning’s pitiful annihilation of the show by the British press. They’d love to see Freddie crash and burn in some misguided operatic excursion, and thus I recall thinking perhaps he’d be best coming back to this idea in a decade or two. I wondered what the other three band members were thinking too.
My consuming thought was basically this: Could this be the worst, most ill conceived collaboration since Bonnie & Clyde, heading inexorably for a humiliating and very public fall? It seemed a distinct likelihood to me. If Freddie fell flat on his face here, he wouldn’t be the first, but in so doing it might also be the end of his association with Queen. God forbid!
Queen’s most recent albums at that time, ‘The Works’ (1984) and ‘A Kind Of Magic’ (1986), had been monster hits. So too had a string of singles; ‘One Vision’, ‘A Kind Of Magic’, ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’, ‘I Want To Break Free’, ‘Radio Ga Ga’, and the like. The colossal 1986 Magic tour had been the biggest and most successful ever! I had seen Queen in concert on both tours, and they were astonishing both times. They had blown my mind on record, and repeated the feat on stage too. Queen was on an all time high. Freddie’s stock, likewise, was on an all time high too. The man could do no wrong. This was no time for a fall, nor even a detour. This was not the time to be trying anything foolhardy or ill advised – not that there would have been any telling Freddie that, I’m sure.
I was nervous of this Freddie/Montserrat merging, and so too were a million or two fellow fans.
For all we knew at that moment, our beloved Queen front man was rehearsing, there and then, in some secret London studio somewhere, alongside the Spanish diva lady and her entourage, practising and preparing to be a mock rock opera singer? This was a real possibility by all accounts, so I rang some friends, I called the fan club, I scanned newspapers and the TV teletext. It was true. It wasn’t just a one-off single. Queen’s ‘flamboyant’ (they always called him that) lead singer, dear Freddie the rock God, had evidently recorded an entire album’s worth of material with the equally flamboyant soprano… songs with titles like ‘Ensueno’, ‘The Fallen Priest’ and ‘Overture Piccante’. This was very far from the Queen norm. This was uncharted territory to say the very least.
I didn’t know what a Piccante was, nor an Ensueno. And what kind of Freddie composition would require a title like La Japonaise? Oh dear! I was uneasy. I was perfectly happy with hammers to fall, hard lives, kinds of magic, Queen breaking free, the odd vision, and not wanting to live forever, thank you very much. Apparently, a gospel choir was involved too, in Freddie’s latest project!
I’d already heard ‘Exercises In Free Love’, because it had appeared a year earlier as the B-side to Freddie’s cover of ‘The Great Pretender’, and of course there had been the ‘Barcelona’ single, with another version of ‘Exercises’ on the reverse, and that was all great. But, ‘The Golden Boy’ and the rest?... Well, frankly, I was apprehensive and edgy, and wondered where this would lead.
What if? This prospect consumed me from the very first mention of the ‘Barcelona’ thing. What if Freddie was found to be in any way ‘lacking’? That would be a devastating ‘first’ for the man. Could he deal with that? Could I deal with that? What would all the Queen fans make of it? Was Freddie, and the Queen group by association, about to observe a mass exodus of disillusioned fans from the camp? All kinds of negative worrying thoughts occurred to me as I sat listening to the recently released ‘Live In Budapest’ video. Queen at their very best, on the crest of a tidal wave. My God! Freddie and the band were on top of the world in 1987/88, and here was Freddie about to release perhaps the most unlikely recordings of his, or anyone else’s, career - ever!
This was surely the most outrageous teaming of talent of all time. Rock meets Opera, Freddie with Montserrat – or perhaps Freddie Vs Montserrat!
The album was imminent. So far, all the only insight had been the ‘Barcelona’ single, twelve months earlier. I recall the first time I heard it on the radio. I liked it. I liked it a lot. Moreover, rather weirdly, my mum liked it too, and my dad – and he usually only said good things about Tony Bennett and Sinatra! This was an excellent omen. Could it really be that Freddie was about to appeal to a whole new generation and genre of people, a completely new audience, if this new solo animal fared well? I had not foreseen this thing going terribly well. NO ONE foresaw that, I think… except Freddie, probably.
And then, after some TV airing of the very much larger than life Fred and Montsy, my girlfriend’s mum called. She too LOVED it – not just ‘liked’ it. She rang to utter sentences like, “Queen’s Freddie Mercury has done a duet with a large Spanish woman in a black dress who’s name I can’t pronounce – and it’s utterly wonderful!’ And then she said she liked it more than ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’!
I was as unprepared for the ‘Barcelona’ reaction, as I imagine Freddie himself and Montserrat must have been. Great! This was a most encouraging start, better than I had envisaged. I just hoped and prayed that the rest of the album was as good. Half as good would have done!
Naturally, on the morning that the ‘Barcelona’ album hit the shops, I duly purchased my copy – a vinyl version. I don’t think CDs were the norm quite yet; they’d only just started to circulate in ‘88. I held this LP in my hands and rather liked the images of Freddie and his new cohort. Freddie in his immaculate attire and beaming smile, seemed assured that the package in hand was about to delight, and the Spanish lady appeared correspondingly jubilant. Freddie would later site the photograph of he and Montserrat embracing, as among his very favourites ever.
The lyrics on the page were intriguing too, the general feel of the project was promising - all was well with the ‘appearance’ of the piece.
But… how would it actually sound? Was this an eccentric Mercurial adventure too far, the burning of the metaphoric bridges forever, never to be retracted or lived down again? Or was it the shrewdest, most wonderful and musically compelling partnership of the last 30 years? For Freddie’s sake, for Queen’s, and my own, I hoped for the latter.
Very soon into Side One it was evident that Freddie, as ever, had hit the spot – nailed it! And let’s not for one second overlook the very significant contribution of Mike Moran here, because his piano work and driving inspiring rip-roaring (as someone once wrote) style is so incredibly distinctive and accomplished. As Side 2 neared its close, it was clear to me that this was a truly staggering and top-drawer piece of work. It startled me with its diversity and range, and it moved me in equal measure with its wondrous voices, harmonies, emotion, poise and elegance. The sheer musicality and quality swept over me. What a magnificent combination they were!
‘How Can I Go On’ (even the title was enchanting), ‘The Fallen Priest’, ‘The Golden Boy’… all beautifully written and delivered with unencumbered raw emotion. And then there was, is, the sublime gem that is ‘Guide Me Home’. This is the sort of composition that Freddie so excelled at. An exquisite combination of haunting melody and heartfelt poignant lyrics.
It was such a dynamic and arresting song, that I stopped and played that track again, and then again. ‘Guide Me Home’ is magnificent. I can hardly wait to hear it in its new 2012 form, recorded with the full orchestra that to me it always longed for.
Who will find me, take care and side with me
Guide me back safely to my home
Where I belong, once more
And then I went back to ‘How Can I Go On’, and quickly I knew that this was a beautiful, sensitive, uncompromising, courageous and candid body of work from the Queen man. There was, is, much there to take in, if you listen carefully and let the music and words take you.
I wasn’t at all sure in 1987/88 how other Queen fans would fare with this most absurd, on the face of it, projects, or if they’d even make it to Side Two - if indeed they’d given Side One a shot at all, but I did realise on that day that Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballe had jointly created a powerful and unforgettable tour de force, and one that deserved a fair hearing from the hard rock Queen fans of old. I’m sure that for the most part, Queen fans new and old gave Freddie’s latest unlikely venture fair hearing, and reviewed it justly. Despite all that Freddie said about not caring what certain people thought about him or his work – referring to journalists mostly – he did care hugely about what the fans thought of his songs. I’m sure he knew that most Queen fans welcomed and embraced ‘Barcelona’ and its flamboyant performances, videos, colours and textures. ‘Barcelona’ was so very Freddie. He loved it, we loved it, most of the world did too – though not the opera purists, predictably. Who cares about them!
When all is said and done, whether you like it or hate it, ‘Barcelona’ is an album that Freddie loved a very great deal. He enjoyed writing and recording it, and particularly meeting and working with the lady who would become very dear to him. I too have come to love this album. Certain songs move me to tears, for all sorts of reasons. I fully expect the newest incarnation, with full real orchestra and strings, to move me all over again.
It is such a lovely and too often overlooked album. Perhaps this time around it will reach a whole new audience again and reinforce just what an extraordinary musician and performer Freddie was.
I will come to this 2012 recital with renewed vigour, and with even more excitement and anticipation than I did first time around, over 20 years ago. I have good memories of this album, to which I hope to add new ones.
Freddie did finally bring ballet to the masses – sort of! Well... opera anyway. He and Montserrat Caballe brought a whole new world of music to people like me, who might otherwise never have bothered to listen to anything remotely operatic. For that, and for the majestic songs on the ‘Barcelona’ album, and if it had only been ‘Guide Me Home’ and ‘How Can I Go On’, I will forever be in Freddie’s debt. Not for the first time.
Greg Brooks, June 2012