"I’m moving into opera now. Forget rock and roll"
Freddie Mercury always had wider musical and cultural tastes than your average rock star, but then again, Freddie Mercury was not your average rock star...
The road to ‘Barcelona’ was a long one.
It all began in 1981 when Freddie first fell in love with what he thought was the most beautiful voice in the world. Freddie went to the Royal Opera House to see Luciano Pavarotti in Verdi’s ‘Un ballo in maschera.’ He’d heard him on record, but had never seen him live and admired the tenor’s voice and control. However, as impressive as Pavarotti clearly was, it was the mezzo soprano who blew Freddie away. As soon as she began to sing his jaw dropped. He was entranced. The voice belonged to Montserrat Caballé.
It was three years later, during the final recording of his first solo album ‘Mr Bad Guy’ in Munich, that Freddie interrupted the sessions to play Jim Beach, his manager, a record of Montserrat Caballé. “I wish to record with her”, Freddie told an astonished Jim. “Please arrange it.”
Jim Beach enlisted the help of Spanish promoter Pino Sagliocco and together they finally arranged for the two to meet at the Ritz hotel in Barcelona.
Freddie took with him pianist / arranger, Mike Moran, together with a demo recording they had prepared for Montserrat (entitled “Exercises in Free Love”) which Freddie had sung in falsetto imitating her voice. Freddie’s team had arranged for a massive PA system to be installed in the garden at the Ritz where they met and Freddie played his demo to Montserrat the moment she arrived. “Could I sing it next Sunday at my recital at Covent Garden?” Montserrat asked on hearing it. They rehearsed it then and there and the album Barcelona was born.
Freddie was in his element. He was working with his heroine, stretching his musical skills into a new dimension and pushing himself further than ever before.
The lead single ‘Barcelona’ was dedicated to both Montserrat’s hometown and their own unique friendship. Freddie always found writing lyrics a chore, but the opening verse must have come easy as it was deep from the heart: ‘I want all the world to see, a miracle sensation, my guide and inspiration, now my dream is slowly coming true.’ Come true it did.
Over the next year, Freddie, Montserrat and Mike Moran recorded an astounding album unlike any other that had gone before. As ever, Freddie reveled in mixing musical styles, immersing himself in those he loved most, gospel, opera, classical, ballads and pop. He also collaborated with Tim Rice, another lyricist he admired on two tracks ‘The Golden Boy’ and ‘Fallen Priest.’
‘Barcelona’ sold over a million copies upon its release in 1988. The single was a top ten hit in 1987 and became the official song for the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games; the plan being that Freddie and Montserrat would perform live at the Opening Ceremony. However, this was something that Freddie, in his heart of hearts knew he’d never do.
During the making of the album, it was confirmed that he was HIV positive. He didn’t know how long he had to live. As far as Freddie was aware, this could be his final album so he did everything in his power to make sure that it was his finest. It was.
Sadly Freddie died eight months before the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He didn’t get to perform it live that year or witness the true impact of his amazing record which was the soundtrack of the summer across the globe. It was also a bigger hit when re-released peaking at No.2 in the UK Charts.
But the Barcelona story doesn’t quite end there.
For many years fans of the album have always wanted to hear what it would have sounded like with a live orchestra. Believe it or not, it was almost entirely recorded on keyboards. The reason Freddie decided upon that at the time was largely due to the fact that he was already dealing with an opera singer who came from an entirely different world to his and to arrange a score for a full eighty piece orchestra was one step too far out of his comfort zone.
Now, to mark the 25th anniversary of the song, Stuart Morley, musical director of the Queen musical ‘We Will Rock You’ has faithfully adapted the entire album for orchestra which lifts what was already an outstanding record into a whole new stratosphere. Rousing, triumphant, emotional and magnificent.
In addition to the orchestral score, performed by the FILMharmonic Orchestra, Prague, other live instruments have been added for the first time. Naoko Kikuchi, is one of the few koto players in the western world, who flew over to add the ancient oriental instrument to ‘La Japonaise.’ Rufus Taylor, Roger’s son, has replaced the drum machines on ‘The Golden Boy’ and ‘How Can Go On’ with live percussion. The latter song also boasts a new violin solo from David Garrett and of course, John Deacon appears on bass.
‘Barcelona: Special Edition’ is finally the album it should have been. The world will undoubtedly rediscover and fall in love with it all over again. The only downside is that the visionary behind this masterpiece isn’t around to hear it too.
Rhys Thomas, June 2012
Exercises In Free Love (1987 Side)
This track is often the source of confusion, so let’s lay any remaining doubts to rest once and for all.
The concluding track on Side 1 of the Barcelona album, is a delicate piece entitled simply Ensueño (roughly translated; reverie, a dream, illusion or fantasy). The track features Montserrat and Freddie sharing lead vocals, set to music composed by Freddie and Mike Moran. However, Ensueño is predated by this track, Exercises In Free Love.
Exercises first emerged in February 1987, as the B-side to The Great Pretender, a full 20 months before the release of the Barcelona album. And to further confuse matters, Exercises also featured as the flipside to the Barcelona single – which emerged in October 1987, almost exactly one year ahead of the mother album.
While the music for both pieces is identical, Exercises is Freddie’s meticulously constructed ‘guide’ for Montserrat, without lyrics or proper form, but instead featuring improvised mock operatic falsetto vocalisation. It is, if you like, Freddie’s vocal ‘impression’ of Montserrat. It was this recording that Freddie took with him to Barcelona when he first met the diva, and which, so greatly impressed her. Ensueño, meanwhile, followed much later, and features proper lyrics composed by Montserrat.
Barcelona (Early Version: Freddie’s Demo Vocal)
Recorded: Townhouse Studios, London. April 28 1987.
This early recording of Barcelona features alternative lyrics very different to the familiar cut – ‘The wind is blowing free, I’m running with the breeze, open all the doors’. Freddie is singing a falsetto guide vocal for Montserrat, and his impression is remarkably convincing.
La Japonaise (Early Version: Freddie’s Demo Vocal)
Recorded: Townhouse Studios, London. September 1 1987.
Perhaps the most impressive song on the Barcelona album, in terms of lyrics and vocal performance, this early version of La Japonaise is a fascinating alternative. While the backing track has been meticulously constructed, Freddie has not yet composed lyrics, and so the performance, both English and Japanese parts, is improvised.
Rachmaninov’s Revenge (The Fallen Priest – Later Version: Freddie’s Demo Vocal)
Recorded: Townhouse Studios, London. February 19 1987.
Here we have an entire alternative verse which Freddie later abandons for the familiar album version: ‘So now you really think you own me. When I gave up all my love for you only. I want to feel the way we were before. My life is in your hands and I love you madly’. This time, Freddie provides guide vocals for both himself and Montserrat, but for the mid section, both are improvised.
Ensueño (Montserrat’s Live Takes)
Recorded: Townhouse Studios, London. March 14 1988.
Here, Montserrat is in the studio with Mike Moran and a grand piano. Freddie and David Richards are standing by in the control room monitoring every move, and the scene is set for Ensueño take 1… and Take 2, and Take 3. If Freddie is a notorious perfectionist, then the Superdiva (as he sometimes referred to her in interviews) is something else!
But before Montserrat begins her recital… a little surprise.
The Golden Boy (Early Version: Freddie’s Demo Vocal)
Recorded: Townhouse Studios, London. May 2 1987
This recording features Freddie singing all the verses, including alternative lyrics in the second and fourth verses. The gospel choir does not feature on this recording and the vocal performance on the latter verses is completely different to the familiar album cut. Also, three entire verses in the mid section are missing, presumably not yet written.
Guide Me Home / How Can I Go On (Alternative Versions)
Recorded: Townhouse Studios, London. March 2 1988
Montserrat does not feature on these early renditions. Freddie fills the vocal tracks with both falsetto guide vocal, and his own lead vocal – much of which is improvised and features different lyrics. Two entire verses are missing from Home, while just the third is absent from How Can I Go On, but Freddie’s counterpoint harmonies are more than fair compensation.
How Can I Go On (Alternative Piano Version)
Recorded: Townhouse Studios, London. April 9 1987
A very different arrangement to that of the usual version, this early recording shows Freddie and Mike Moran taking the song off at a curious tangent. According to David Richards, the excursion was short lived.
Greg Brooks, June 2012