How Queen Moved on Without Freddie Mercury
They were grieving at the loss a close friend and a person with whom they’d conquered the world. Still, there was no doubt – certainly not in the minds of Brian May and Roger Taylor – that the show must go on.
Mercury was diagnosed HIV positive in 1987, although he never spoke in detail to his bandmates about his illness. Into the '90s, the iconic frontman was losing his physical strength. As they completed work on 1991 album Innuendo – particularly as they filmed the video for “These Are the Days of Our Lives,” by which time Mercury could barely walk – it was clear that he was not going to recover.
“It was always a very private thing with him,” May said in a British TV interview a week after the singer’s death, adding that Queen weren’t sure how long he’d been ill. “I guess we knew intuitively something was going on, but it wasn’t talked about. He didn’t officially tell us until a few months before he went. But certainly he knew for five years or more, so he was living under the shadow for a very, very long time.”
He added: “Freddie was very much his own man; he made a decision very early on in his life that he was going to do things his way, and certainly we respected that. … He was going to handle his own life, and certainly his own attitude to what he was suffering towards the end was his own business. So in some senses we were gagged by that, which was hard for us. You find yourself even not being able to talk about it to friends. Now that’s kind of lifted we can be very open.”
Taylor added: “The one thing he wanted to do was keep on working in the studio. He was absolutely determined to keep the group going and keep working, and that actually kept him going for a long time.”
“These Are the Days of Our Lives” was converted to black and white, in order to disguise how ill Mercury looked, although color footage was released later. “It was hard; it was, really, but we were trying to support him through it," Taylor said. "He was incredibly brave. … Obviously he knew, and we all knew at that time. But the best thing is just to get on with life.”
Watch Rare Clips from the ‘These Are the Days of Our Lives’ Video Shoot
Even though he admitted Queen were still in the early stages of grief, May was certain that more was to come from the band. He felt they still had a strong message to convey in their frontman’s memory: “I think one of the results of his life can be that people can have a different attitude to people being gay. I really hope so," May said. "Here’s a guy who is strong, who is incredibly talented, quite magnificent in every way – and he was gay and he was quite public about it. I don’t think anyone can quite feel the same way about that anymore – and it’s time, God knows.”
Agreeing to the suggestion that more good could come of Mercury’s suffering, Taylor said: “That’s exactly what Freddie wanted, especially in his last period. He felt he could turn something positive out of this awful thing that was happening. We intend to carry that through.”
They immediately began thinking about a large-scale concert in Mercury's name, with the aim of raising awareness and funds for the fight against AIDS – although at that point the plans were vague. The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert took place on Apr. 20, 1992, five months after his death.
Returning to the scene of their show-stopping appearance at Live Aid in 1985, Queen played to 72,000 people at London’s Wembley Stadium, with around a billion more tuning in across the world. In fact, the concert sold out in three hours, before any details had been announced. It was definitely a fitting tribute, with May, Taylor and bassist John Deacon joined by guests Elton John, Axl Rose, David Bowie, Robert Plant, Joe Elliott, Roger Daltrey and many others. The show was also the launching pad for the Freddie Mercury Phoenix Trust.
“It was a massive strain on our shoulders because we weren’t just performing, we were also organizing everybody else,” May told Classic Rock later. “It was difficult enough just choosing the acts who would appear. We argued a lot among ourselves about the bill, but the basic criteria for the acts finally selected was their relevance to Freddie.”
Two months before the gala event, Queen had been introduced to a new audience in a new way via the movie Wayne’s World, featuring the unforgettable “Bohemian Rhapsody” head-banging scene. Star Mike Myers later revealed that he’d had to fight to keep the song on the soundtrack because the movie studio wanted to use a Guns N’ Roses song.
"Queen, at that point – not by me and not by hardcore fans, but the public had sort of forgotten about them," Myers later admitted. "Freddie had gotten sick, the last time we had seen them was on Live Aid, and then there were a few albums after where they were sort of straying away from their arena-rock roots. But I always loved 'Bohemian Rhapsody.' I thought it was a masterpiece. So, I fought really, really hard for it. And at one point I said, 'Well, I’m out. I don’t want to make this movie if it’s not 'Bohemian Rhapsody.'"
In 1995 Queen released Made in Heaven, their 15th album and the last to feature tracks recorded by Mercury. He’d tried to record as much as possible in his final months. “He just kept saying: 'Write me more. Write me stuff,’” May later recalled. “I want to just sing this and do it and when I am gone, you can finish it off.' He had no fear, really.”
It wasn't an easy record to make. Queen had actually abandoned a year of work in 1993, after feeling they’d taken a wrong turn in the singer’s absence. They still didn't have enough new Mercury recordings to run to full length. Finally, they completed what May described as a “real labor of love” with “so much beauty in it,” using archive material and parts of solo albums.
Possibly the most poignant track on Made in Heaven is “Mother Love,” the final song Mercury wrote with May, and the last vocal performance he recorded. By that time, May said, Queen were more or less living in their studio so that they could take advantage of every moment Mercury felt fit enough to sing – but he ran out of those moments as they worked on “Mother Love.” Mercury said he was going to take a break before coming back to finish it, but he never returned. May sang the last verse himself.
Listen to Queen Perform ‘Mother Love’
In 1997 May, Taylor and Deacon made their final appearance together, performing “The Show Must Go On” with Elton John and a ballet troupe in Paris. It was only the second time Queen had played without their frontman – and John, for one, wanted them to keep going. Deacon, who'd seemingly always been uneasy about continuing with anything Queen related, nevertheless retired after the concert. In a brief statement after Mercury’s death, Deacon said: “There is no point carrying on. It is impossible to replace Freddie.”
Taylor later told Rolling Stone: “I think he’s a little fragile and he just didn’t want to know anything about talking to people in the music business or whatever. That’s fair enough. We respect that.” May noted that Deacon was still part of Queen's decision-making process when it came to “anything financial.”
Watch Queen + Elton John in Paris 1997
Afterward, May and Taylor joined keyboardist Spike Edney, who’d been with the band since 1984 and became their music director, began using the “Queen +” banner for a series of concert appearances with a variety of guest singers. Admitting a week after Mercury’s death that it was an almost “unconsiderable” concept, his colleagues sought to demonstrate his wide range of influences and abilities by bringing in Luciano Pavarotti, Robbie Williams, George Michael and others. The results of those collaborations were gathered on the 1999 compilation Greatest Hits III. By the time of that release’s success, Queen had become the second best-selling British band of all time, with only the Beatles having sold more records.
“We played together on a live TV show, and we had such a blast with it,” Rodgers told VintageRock.com, recalling how the collaboration began. “They played my songs and I played theirs. We came off stage and said, ‘We have to do something.’ The enthusiasm was there from the start. Normally, I have jam sessions with people, and what often happens is: ‘Oh yeah, we gotta do something. I’ll see you later, man.’ And you get busy and nothing happens. … And then Brian called me up and said, ‘How do you fancy doing a tour in Europe? Just a small tour as Queen plus Paul Rodgers?’ And I was shocked actually for a second.”
Rodgers said he’d imagined it would be a brief experience, “just for fun,” but continued: “this was different; it was somehow much bigger. And it really was. It grew from being a European tour into a worldwide tour, which took two years to get around. It took us all by surprise and it’s great.”
Queen + Paul Rodgers released The Cosmos Rocks in 2008 and completed additional dates before going their separate ways. Many fans felt that the collaboration didn't work all that well, with both May and Taylor accepting later that Rodgers’ bluesy voice wasn’t a great match for Queen’s more flamboyant music. “[W]e had a great time with Paul, no doubt about it. and it kind of stretched it to a new place,” May added, though he still described the period as “a thoroughly good experience.”
Watch Queen + Paul Rodgers Perform ‘The Show Must Go On’
An unexpected twist of fate took place at about the time that project was winding down, as May and Taylor were asked to guest on the season finale of TV gameshow American Idol. They imagined the experience of performing with runner-up Adam Lambert would last 10 minutes; they couldn’t have imagined it would last 10 years. In Lambert, Queen said they found the spirit of Mercury.
Lambert, a lifelong fan, found his perfect foil with May and Taylor, and over the course of several years the parties learned to get the best out of each other. Speaking ahead of their first tour in 2012, Lambert said: “The intention is to pay tribute to Freddie and the band by singing some fucking great songs. It’s to keep the music alive for the fans and give it an energy that Freddie would have been proud of. There's no intention in my mind of replacing Freddie. That's impossible. The way I’m choosing to view it is that it’s a great honor, and one I’m in no way going to shirk."
Watch Queen on ‘American Idol’ with Adam Lambert
“I would say, with all due respect to Paul [Rodgers], that Adam is more suited to a lot of our material,” Taylor said in 2014, “and whereas we had great tours with Paul, I think Adam is more naturally at home with us.” May agreed, noting: “Like us, he has many, many colors, so we can explore some of those strange excursions that Queen likes to.”
Meanwhile, the Freddie Mercury who had kept to himself was finally revealed via the movie Bohemian Rhapsody, which won four Oscars and became the biggest-grossing music biopic of all time. The character delivered by Rami Malek seemed to exactly match the personality May and Taylor spoke about in their 1991 interview – and that had been their intention, even if the storyline had been adjusted for dramatic effect: For example, Mercury is seen telling his bandmates he’s HIV positive before the Live Aid concert, when he hadn’t even been diagnosed in real life.
Watch the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Trailer
“When I got this role, I thought, 'Oh, my God, this could be a career-defining performance,’” Malek said last year. “And then two minutes later I thought, 'This could be a career killer.'” Malek said he aimed to capture Mercury’s ability to transmit “pain and beauty” in his music, adding: “He gives everyone watching permission to embrace their imperfections and sing as loudly as they can. That is what he did for me.”
Earlier this year, Queen + Adam Lambert embarked on their Rhapsody Tour, the highest-profile road trip they’ve undertaken since Mercury’s time. Lambert’s continues to insist that he's not attempting to replace his hero, and Mercury himself is featured on video during each show. So, it’s safe to say May and Taylor have succeeded in their ambition of keeping their late friend’s creations and ambitions alive.
“I always think that Freddie, with a wicked smile, would say something like ‘I hate you, Madam Lambert,’” May said in 2017. "Because even Freddie would have been gobsmacked at his range and his ability to reinterpret these songs which the four of us originally created together.”
Watch Queen + Adam Lambert at the Oscars
Looking back, May admits he initially wanted nothing to do with the band. “There was a point in the grieving process when I didn’t want to talk about Queen, didn’t want feel it was there except as history,” he told the Express. “But I got through that and now I regard it as part of my life that will never go away … and it shouldn’t go away because it’s a big part of what I worked to create.”
He added: “It’s like a family member: you lose them but you don’t quite lose them, because you take them with you. We were so long together and you get that closeness with somebody – particularly in a creative environment … in a creative environment you learn to know what somebody else might be thinking. You might not always be right but you have a feeling for that, and I still feel it and Roger does as well. Particularly, it applies more if we are working as Queen and we think ‘What would Freddie say and we’d go, ‘Ah, probably he would say this.’
"He’s part of the creative process because he’s part of what we are," May added. "We really chiseled this thing out all together, me and John and Freddie and Roger."
The Best Song From Every Queen Album
You Think You Know Queen?