Freddie Mercury was dying. Very few of the people buying “Innuendo” knew it – most would have heard the rumours that the singer had AIDS, or seen the constant tabloid speculation around the ‘ailing rocker’. But they would have also heard Mercury’s denials. So this single has a particularly unusual context – almost entirely hidden at the time, hard to avoid now. How you rate “Innuendo” might well depend on how much you hear it as a last – or close-to-last – message to fans and world, a big blocky cry against the dying of the light.
The problem with this line of thinking is that anthems were Queen’s stock in trade – almost every record has one or two singles which could have been suitably valedictory if tragedy had struck post-release. So it’s worth rewinding back to 1991 and remembering how “Innuendo” sounded – to me, at any rate – when it actually hit. It seemed a rather cynical record – fanbase mobilisation a la Iron Maiden but with the added twist that here was the group bowing to demand and making a new “Bohemian Rhapsody”, a sprawling multipart epic.
Compared to “Bohemian Rhapsody”, though, this is flat. The bulk of the record – the opening and closing stretches, with those Bolero-style rhythms and Freddie in semi-spoken, declamatory mode – only made sense to me when I found out the band had Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” in mind. There’s something of that record’s elemental quality here – Mercury sounds like a man on an endless plain with thunder gathering overhead – but on “Kashmir” the storm regularly breaks while on “Innuendo” the clouds just thicken while Mercury rants on. It’s a bleak and ominous track, but also hectoring and oddly purposeless – when the song resolves back into this plod after its middle section it’s a disappointment.
So what about that middle bit, where Queen break their forced march and make good on the whole genre-switching idea? For “Bo Rhap”‘s mock-opera swap “Innuendo”‘s duelling flamenco solos – one by Steve Howe, just to underline the whole back-to-prog vibe! – but here the interlude risks killing the momentum not boosting it. The best part of the track, and the one moment which does genuinely possess some of that 1975 spark, is the synth orchestra on the “Be free with your ego” section. It’s surprising, it’s very pretty, and Mercury sounds engaged and urgent. If you do take this single as part of a farewell, what better leave-behind than “just turn yourself into anything you want to be?”. And when the massed harmonies tumble into a solo, it’s just like old times. But then the moment passes, and the clouds roll in again.