Featuring Freddie Mercury‘s enrapturing vocal delivery and Brian May‘s tightly coiled guitar hooks, ‘Innuendo’ sits with the greatest tracks Queen released during their tenure. Over the course of six minutes, the tune ebbs and flows, particularly in the way the drums come crashing through the proceedings, every tom-tom and fill destined for grandeur, only stopping to let the audience enjoy a euphoric gasp of breath.
Between the blistering riffs and soaring vocals comes the sound of a quieter, more pleasant flamenco guitar, bringing new sonic textures into the band’s ever-widening orbit. It’s the sound of Steve Howe, Yes’ feisty lead guitar player and musical director, now more determined than ever to showcase his versatility as an acoustic player.
The tune was one of Roger Taylor’s most sincere compositions, querying man’s incessant need to create war when he was surrounded by such splendour and beauty. He was no doubt inspired by Freddie Mercury’s ailing condition, but it’s possible to discern from the track some of the flavours from Led Zeppelin’s Eastern flavoured masterwork, ‘Kashmir’.
It was Queen’s first and only nod of recognition to the so-called progressive rock genre, as the funereal tempos start to open the track make for the jauntier, more free-spirited rumblings heard during the middle eighth. The flamenco patterns are succeeded by the propulsive, punk-like fade-outs of the closing coda. Densely produced, and written to demonstrate Mercury’s range as a rock vocalist. He sounds fired up, clearly aching to channel this emotion for a mass audience, although he was gravely aware that he would never get the chance to sing the song to a ticket-buying audience.
The band had grown accustomed to writing pedestrian rock numbers during the 1980s, in the hope that they could flesh out the missing holes on the stage, but with Mercury as ill, as he was, Queen was anxious to demonstrate their studio acumen, cutting a daringly inventive track that pivoted from Wagnerian to whimsical in the course of extended radio airplay.
May thought the track exemplified the workings of the cast as a whole, as each man in question fleshed out the mosaic of sound that swept over the listener, like the rush of a hunter intractably chasing after a single hare. “I think ‘Innuendo’ was one of those things which could either be big – or nothing,” May admitted. “We had the same feelings about ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. It’s a risk because a lot of people say ‘It’s too long, it’s too involved, and we don’t want to play it on the radio.’I think that could be a problem, in which case it will die. Or it could happen that people say ‘This is interesting and new and different’, and we’ll take a chance.”
As it happened, audiences luxuriated in the danger, and the banger won themselves the most unlikely number one hit of their career. The joy was short-lived for the group, as it was growing harder for Mercury to conceal his illness. He died on November 24th 1991 at the heartbreakingly youthful age of 45. Bandmates May and Taylor were devastated, but they steadied themselves by making preparations for a tribute concert for their deceased colleague.
There was no greater sense of accomplishment for the band when it was announced that Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant had agreed to sing ‘Innuendo’ at Wembley with them. Acknowledging the influence he had on the group, Plant added a couple of verses from ‘Kashmir’ into the mix, the Zeppelin epic that had inspired the Queen track. It didn’t meld with the song, either due to lack of rehearsal or nerves on Plant’s part, and the singer felt some embarrassment for the effort. His appearance was omitted from the DVD release in the 2000s, as per his request.
It’s a shame he feels that strongly about the performance, especially considering some of the poor performances of the night. Where George Michael soared through ‘Somebody to Love’, Roger Daltrey stumbled all over ‘I Want It All’ and the vocal demands of ‘Under Pressure’ left David Bowie stuttering and mumbling as he attempted to recall the nuances of the 1981 vocal performance. If the event had a standout performance, then it was May, singing ‘Too Much Love Will Kill You’ with tremendous restraint, his eyes betraying the emotion his lips desperately wanted the world to hear.
The Innuendo album is the last Queen album. Through the bravado, bucolics and beauty come the sound of four men desperately trying to rock to their heart’s content. And while they knew their work was never going to make it outside of the studio, the recordings showcase a quartet playing as though their lives depended on it. And with the title track, Queen showed they were every bit as viable a progressive rock band as Led Zeppelin were.
Stream the track below.