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Mar 11

QUEEN – “Innuendo”

FT + Popular97 comments • 6,290 views

#658, 26th January 1991

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.

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Comments

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  1. 61
    swanstep on 13 Mar 2011 #

    the noble British tradition of men in drag
    If by this you mean the tradition of the panto. then, yep., most Americans are clueless about that. As a result, all sorts of English comedy including Python gets over-interpreted by lots of Americans as having specific cross-dressing/camp/gay/you name it meaning. Conversely, the availablility of the Panto tradition does allow in the UK for genuinely cross-dressing/camp/gay/etc. stuff to kind of hide in plain sight, be plausibly deniable. UK rednecks who wanted to kid themselves about Freddie Mercury could think of I want to break free as strictly pantomime whereas US rednecks didn’t have that option. That said, I don’t know whether that vid. itself did much harm to Queen stateside: for whatever reason, my sense is that Queen never fully connected in the US, i.e., not the way, say, Stones, Who, Zeppelin, Floyd, Elton John did. Rather like Bowie and Abba, they had a bunch of songs that everyone ended up knowing and loving (and I’m sure they sold many many records), but not a huge loyal following behind that. Even now, for example, the We Will Rock You musical (which I gather begins with Innuendo) has never been on Broadway (or anywhere else in the US except for Las Vegas).

  2. 62

    if ever there was an example of “hide it in plain sight”, it was FM fronting a band called QUEEN — there’s out, and then there’s DO PAY ATTENTION PLEASE — and yet for all our earnest teenage discussions about (and confusion about) homosexuality in the 70s, i don’t once recall the hint of a suggestion that anyone put two and two together

    i may just have been hanging with a particularly dim lot though, in this regard

    not just panto, actually: there were popular TV comedians from the 50s to the 80s, whose shtick centred on drag: danny larue, dick emery, the very great stanley baxter, the two ronnies, and of course kenny everett

  3. 63
    JonnyB on 13 Mar 2011 #

    Wichita #54: RE ‘You’re My Best Friend’ – yes – love the way that it almost seems to be one long introduction, just about to break into the song.

    John Deacon had a track on each album aside from the first two IIRC – a sort of major key wistfulness seemed to be his thing. Then he wrote ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ which seemed to give the band the confidence to take on board a lot more of his funk/bass-led influences. I saw an interview once that said that he didn’t really like playing the heavy rock stuff – which seemed a bit odd, as Queen was essentially a heavy rock band when he joined.

    As another commenter said, a ‘typical’ Queen song is a bit of an elusive beast. In a lot of cases, the stuff written by each of the ‘main’ songwriters could almost have been by three different bands. I always thought it odd that such an ambitious band went with this approach – it’s possibly one of the things that stopped them – even in their heyday – from ever making a great album.

  4. 64

    Roxy Music certainly approached their music-writing in a “three different bands” way: four really, when Eno was still with them. And their first four LPs are all great as LPs. Another oddity about Queen is how rarely they’re lumped in with Glam, where they seem with hindsight entirely to belong.

  5. 65
    wichita lineman on 13 Mar 2011 #

    Re 63: Thanks Jonny. Didn’t realise he wrote AOBTD. Mark, I think that’s because they broke through at the tail end of Glam (’74, the year of Always Yours and Lonely This Christmas). They certainly fitted in, as much as Cockney Rebel who surfaced in the same year, to 9-yr old me; Seven Seas of Rhye could be the post Chinn/Chapman Sweet. If they’d split in ’75 Queen would be remembered as a Glam act.

    Mick Patrick, girl group afficianado, once told me about going to very early Queen shows and that they had a predominantly gay crowd. When I seemed surprised he said “They were called QUEEN!” Presumably EMI just didn’t market them as such but, yes, how the hell didn’t everyone notice?

    Must. Investigate. Hot Space. When my ex worked in Reckless, Islington, in the late 90s they used to sell copies within seconds of them coming in, and always to black kids.

  6. 66
    Izzy on 13 Mar 2011 #

    Were Queen bigger in Canada? I’m sure I’ve seen a film of them performing to countless thousands in Toronto or Montreal. Would this represent a significant culture gap between the two countries?

    PS I’m sure I remember the official line on Freddie in the 80s being that he was ‘bisexual’, which was good enough for the Queen fans at my school.

  7. 67
    JonnyB on 13 Mar 2011 #

    64 – That’s interesting – I know very little about Roxy Music – just the greatest hits – and I’m not quite sure why.

    RE – the gay angle going under the radar: I was going to say that presumably the shelter of glam meant that a lot of people just thought ‘another band femming it up’. But then I thought about Judas Priest taking on the gay leather look with no such precedent (that I know of). I guess it just passed people by.

  8. 68
    enitharmon on 13 Mar 2011 #

    pink lord sukrat @ 64

    I thought gayness was the whole subtext of A Night at the Opera. My deconstruction of it as an assignment for my Open University Popular Culture module in 1987 might have been a flight of fancy but twenty four years on I think not.

  9. 69

    That seems a pretty plausible interpretation, Rosie — but as you say, one that becomes somehow much surer in retrospect. And as I say, my pals and I were not exactly pioneering Queer Theorists aged 15, so it may just have been us missing a point lots of others already got. However I don’t recall anyone else in the 70s suggesting this; which may just mean I was looking in the wrong place…

  10. 70
    Tom on 13 Mar 2011 #

    I can confirm that “which pop stars are gay” was just as common a boys’ school topic in the early 80s, and that Freddie Mercury was STILL generally assumed to not be.

  11. 71
    Rory on 13 Mar 2011 #

    This discussion prompted me to refresh my memory of late Queen albums over the weekend, from The Works onwards, to see where Innuendo would fit for me nowadays. I was a solid admirer of Queen as a teenager, though not quite as big a fan as some of my friends, and maintained my interest even after they fell somewhat out of fashion in the Australian charts after A Kind of Magic. I listened to The Miracle a lot when it came out, and was absolutely obsessed by “The Invisible Man”, which still sounds terrific to me. Innuendo felt like a bit of a step down at the time – basically, I was missing an “Invisible Man” part two – but on this listen I enjoyed it. I’d have to say, though, that I enjoy just about every track more than the opener; not that “Innuendo” itself is bad, but it does plod a bit. I don’t mind the “Kashmir” similarities (and am surprised I didn’t notice them at the time, as I was listening to Led Zep back then too) – in fact I wish they’d pushed them harder, instead of shifting into more familiar Queen territory at the “we’ll keep on trying” line. It’s baffling that it made number one anywhere, though – about the last track I’d have released as a single. Well done, whoever decided to. 5.

    After A Kind of Magic, Queen started to slide in the Oz charts, although “I Want It All” reached number 10 in 1989 (“Innuendo” peaked at number 28 there). Highlander was a big hit in my age group in 1986, and its songs were considered a highlight; not as good as their work on Flash Gordon, but full of great Queen moments. But I remember reading a dismissive review taking the piss out of “Who Wants to Live Frevvahhhh”, and doubting my own devotion to Queen as a result – could there really be something wrong with pompous and overblown rock music? – which maybe was symptomatic of a wider revisionism. That song now sounds fine to me; about as subtle as Freddie ever got, which was not very, but almost too poignant in light of what was to come.

    I’d moved on by the time Made in Heaven appeared, and only ended up buying it a couple of years ago for a quid or two. I liked it more than I expected to – despite the relative absence of memorable hooks, it hangs together surprisingly well, although the Freddie yelps pinched from earlier tracks jar a bit. I expect I’ll listen to it more often than The Cosmos Rocks, at least, although even that oddity has its moments.

    But now I’m curious about Hot Space, which apart from their first album is the only gap in my collection. The die-hard Queen fans all warned against it back in the day, and there were so many other albums to investigate that I never got around to it… but it sounds like it could be worth a punt.

    JonnyB @63 – “one of the things that stopped them – even in their heyday – from ever making a great album” – really? Not even A Night at the Opera? That was an acknowledged classic by the time I came to them; although I admit that it wasn’t my own favourite. That was Sheer Heart Attack, and I would vote for that as a great album any day; it was the one Queen album I kept listening to long after I’d stopped listening to the rest. Pure joy.

    Hey, this is well-timed: all of their early albums up to A Day at the Races are getting the deluxe 2CD remaster treatment, with a release date of tomorrow.

  12. 72
    JonnyB on 13 Mar 2011 #

    Hi Rory. I worded it badly.

    I guess what I really meant by ‘great’ was more of an exclusive ‘one of the greatest, most-perfect-in-its-way two sides of vinyl/42-minute CDs in the genre of popular music’ rather than just ‘great to listen to’. I love ANATO in many, many ways – it was the first one I bought, and I still feel that child-like thrill of hearing it. But ‘Sweet Lady’ is as bog-standard as bog-standard filler gets, and thus it fails the test for me.

    I suppose my point was that even to an uberfan, all of their albums seem to contain at least one ‘it’ll do’ track – or at least one that utterly jars with everything around it – and I’m surprised they weren’t more ruthless given their fabled ambition.

  13. 73
    Rory on 13 Mar 2011 #

    Fair enough, although I can’t detect any “it’ll do” filler on Sheer Heart Attack. It’s the Revolver of Queen albums in more ways than one.

  14. 74
    23 Daves on 13 Mar 2011 #

    We’ve had discussions about Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality not being obvious to some people, and we’ve talked about The Teardrop Explodes being less than well received as a support band… so I’m surprised nobody’s connected the two yet, and recalled Julian Cope’s anecdote about a group of lads amongst the Milton Keynes crowd who threw bottles at him whilst shouting “Queer!”.

    His response is recalled in the biography “Head On” as roughly: “They think I’m gay and they’re here to see Freddie Mercury? So much for the workings of the average mind”.

  15. 75
    Mark G on 14 Mar 2011 #

    #55, I think I know this one, although I note your “no spoilers”, and the army of bunnies also…

  16. 76
    wichita lineman on 15 Mar 2011 #

    “It’s the Revolver of Queen albums in more ways than one” – intriguing. In how many ways, and what are they?

  17. 77
    Rory on 15 Mar 2011 #

    @76 – mainly that it’s the one before the album that everyone considered “the big one” back in the day, and is better (to my ears) than the album that everyone considered the big one. And not just to my ears, it seems – maybe, like Revolver, its ranking is undergoing some reassessment. Although Queen seem to be fairly out of fashion nowadays, so maybe people don’t give it that much thought.

    It also feels like a bridge between early and mid-period Queen to me, like Revolver does in the Beatles’ work (although Help and Rubber Soul do too, so the analogy isn’t perfect).

  18. 78
    Rory on 15 Mar 2011 #

    Hot Space Really Not That Bad, Shock!

    Okay, it might take me a few listens to grow to like all of it, but tracks 5-11 sound like standard and pretty solid ’80s Queen, and “Dancer” is good stuff. If a couple of tracks were different it would be a very good Queen album – which is about what I’d say of The Works, too.

  19. 79
    Ed on 15 Mar 2011 #

    One of the reviews on Amazon.com suggests ‘Hot Space’ was the album that killed Queen’s career in the US. Anyone able to confirm that?

    It looks as though, rather amazingly, you can’t even get it in the US now: only as an import on CD, and not as a download. That’s pretty unusual for a full release from such a huge band, isn’t it?

    Even such notorious fan base alienators as ‘Presence’, ‘Tusk’, and the dreaded ‘Be Here Now’ can be had on MP3 in America, although ‘Tusk’ retains the infamous and now unnecessary ‘Sara’ edit.

    It’s as if they are trying to write ‘HS’ out of history. Maybe it has a sort of negative halo effect, where it puts people off buying the other albums, or going to see that stupid Broadway show, the name of which escapes me right now. Something to do with ‘Rock You’, right?

  20. 80
    jaq on 16 Mar 2011 #

    “pompous, platitudinous, effortful, spendthrift slog”

    Fair enough. Though that would also render the experimental soundscapes of Radiohead, Tricky, Eno et al utterly devoid of value too.
    Sympathetic mates of a dying man, all still with record contracts or not, are reasonably expectant in the ominous, death-a-pondering frame of mind.
    On a related topic, how much should the value of creative work be appropriately mapped to one’s threshold of patience, which is subject to multiple factors and subjective interests often extraneous to the work’s intrinsic “worth”?

  21. 81
    Tim Byron on 16 Mar 2011 #

    I concur about the Sheer Heart Attack being the Revolver of Queen. It’s a tighter and more engaging album than ANATO, which to me often has something of a leaden touch; I imagine Queen feeling the burden of expectation recording it all after seeing the response to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – “shit, how do we live up to that song?” and overthinking things a little, making things a little more bloated than they need to be (also, ‘Killer Queen’ was their best pop song and “Stone Cold Crazy” pretty close to their best rock song).

  22. 82
    Erithian on 16 Mar 2011 #

    You must mean the in-house response to “Bohemian Rhapsody”, surely, as the album and single came out at pretty much the same time?

  23. 83
    Tim Byron on 18 Mar 2011 #

    There was a month in between the single and album release, according to Wikipedia, and Wikipedia claims they were still recording in early October, only weeks before the album release. There was also a couple of weeks, I think, when they had leaked the single to Kenny Everett and watched it become a radio phenomenon before the single came out? So I reckon they would have had some time to gauge response to the single before the album was done.

    In my head, there’s a bit on the Classic Albums DVD where they mention feeling a bit nervous about trying to follow it up, but maybe that’s just in my head.

  24. 84
    Erithian on 18 Mar 2011 #

    I can’t honestly see them thinking “wow, Bo Rap’s going down well, let’s go back and add another few overdubs to The Prophet’s Song before the album comes out”! Wiki says the single was released on 31 October and the album on 21 November – by which time the single had reached number 9. Incidentally that was the same interval as between “Killer Queen” and “Sheer Heart Attack”, and it became clear by the time the album was released that the single was going to be their first big hit.

  25. 85
    Mark G on 18 Mar 2011 #

    I do remember Bohemian Rhapsody being on the radio for ages before it got released. At least a month.

  26. 86

    IMPORTANT QUESTION FOR ACTUAL REAL QUEEN FANS: did their LPs still say “NO SYNTHESIZERS!” at this point?

  27. 87
    punctum on 18 Mar 2011 #

    No. The Game was the first one not to have that emblazoned on its sleeve, in 1980.

    I liked The Game because it had an ECM-type cover (cf. Michael Mantler’s Movies and Tin Can Alley by Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition).

  28. 88
    Rory on 18 Mar 2011 #

    @86 The Game in 1980 was the one that broke with that (“Play the Game” is dripping with them) – I have the actual LP at home, so I’ll double-check. But you would also have to check 1978’s Jazz to be precise about the end point, which I don’t own on LP (I’m not sure if the CD has the full sleeve) – anyone able to help there? One Amazon reviewer calls Jazz ‘the last of Queen’s “No Synthesizers” albums’.

  29. 89
    Rory on 18 Mar 2011 #

    Ah. Right.

  30. 90
    Mark G on 18 Mar 2011 #

    Ah, and here’s me thinking “Flash” was the first one *not*, thinking “oh how to do, now!”

  31. 91
    Erithian on 18 Mar 2011 #

    I think they especially relished informing us that all four band members played synths on “Flash Gordon”!

  32. 92
    Cumbrian on 18 Mar 2011 #

    Due to Innuendo, I’ve been listening to a lot of Queen over the last few days. The Game is their best for me – followed by Sheer Heart Attack.

    The Game, to me, sounds pretty flab free – the critical notices above on Innuendo being over-blown, to my ears don’t really apply for The Game. Only one track comes in at more than 4 and a half minutes – and even then only by 3 seconds. It’s also got some great bass playing on it.

  33. 93
    Martin F. on 19 Dec 2014 #

    That solo after the “be free” section is very Maiden in its galloping, harmony-guitars kind of way. If only Enigma could have squeezed a bit of axe action in there somewhere.

  34. 94
    Kinitawowi on 19 Dec 2014 #

    Try “I Love You… I’ll Kill You” off The Cross Of Changes.

  35. 95
    DJBobHoskins on 27 Feb 2015 #

    I haven’t got much time for Queen’s output post-Another One Bites The Dust. Except this. After the nonsense of ‘Radio Gaga’, ‘I Want It all’ etc, this had soul. Sounded apocalyptic. It’s not on a par with BR but it’s a very good Queen record. TATDOOL video very poignant but song is awful.

    The thing I associate most with ‘Innuendo’ is the start of the first Gulf War. It was number one at the time and its whole sound and lyrics seemed very apt for the moment. That, and endless gulf war coverage disrupting children’s TV…

  36. 96
    Mostro on 14 Apr 2015 #

    I’m not sure I was ever quite as big a fan of Queen as I thought I was during the mid 80s- though their first Greatest Hits was (and still is) outstanding- and I was probably past that peak by the time this came out, but… I think this is still one of Queen’s best latterday tracks.

    IIRC I first heard this cold on the radio, without having caught an announcement, let alone being aware that Queen had a new single/album due. But I thought it was great on first hearing and still do.

    I’m not fanatical about the barely-post-80s “off the shelf” quality of the synths, but the production is still better than the horribly anodyne (and dated) sound of the “Miracle” album.

    Of course any longish, multi-segment Queen track is going to get compared to Bohemian Rhapsody; if this is more Kashmir-influenced though, it still stands up in its own right as a great track.

    #95 DJBobHoskins; I remember the video getting banned because it came out around the start of the Gulf War and hit too close to home.

  37. 97
    Phil on 14 Apr 2015 #

    This was an early (? – Tom will know) example of the “advance hype, straight in at #1” phenomenon – with a weird and counter-productive consequence, for me at least. I didn’t listen to music radio at the time, didn’t have satellite* & only regularly heard what was in the charts on TOTP – and, of course, they never played records that were going down. So I’ve heard this song (and seen what I remember was a remarkable video) precisely once.

    *Still don’t. When Freeview came in I remember leaving VH1 on for hours at a time in case they played “The Scientist” – I was hoping to tape it & play it backwards. Never did manage it. Weird to think that I could do it in half an hour now. We tend to think of ‘the Net’ as the big change, but I think ‘universal broadband’ and ‘the digitisation of, like, everything’ were game-changers in their own right.

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