With his restless creative spirit, Freddie Mercury continually sought new avenues of expression. He conquered the world with Queen, penning timeless rock anthems that continue to find new audiences around the world. It’s no surprise, however, that Mercury’s artistic ambitions led him to explore other styles of music. Having filled stadiums around the world with Queen, when it came to his own solo work, Mercury was sometimes more reflective than the frontman persona would have had fans believe. Across his two solo albums, Mr. Bad Guy and Barcelona, he explored deeper emotional territory, while also broadening his musical horizons, taking in everything from contemporary dance music to opera and turning those influences into something unique to his own vision. Freddie Mercury’s solo singles trace a creative arc every bit as daring as the one he followed with Queen. Together, these 13 songs define the man behind the persona.
I Can Hear Music/Going Back (1973)
Queen formed in 1970, but by 1972, they were still holding out for that perfect record deal. Many labels were sniffing around, but the band, wary of sharks, stayed patient.
Eventually, they agreed to a unique partnership with the owners of Trident Studios: the band would have access to their world-class facilities free of charge; the studio owners would then broker a deal with a major label on the band’s behalf. The inevitable snag was that they could only use the studios on “down time.” As Brian May later recalled: “They would call us up and say David Bowie had finished a few hours early, so we had from 3am until 7am, when the cleaners came in.”
While the band were hanging around Trident, they were propositioned by producer Robin Cable, who was looking for a singer to record a cover of “I Can Hear Music.” Freddie Mercury duly stepped forward, roping in Brian and Roger on harmonies. The recording paid tribute to Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound, which was then enjoying a resurgence thanks to glam rock’s excesses. Mercury’s androgynous vocal is well-suited to the song (bringing to mind Ronnie Spector’s 1966 delivery more than it does The Beach Boys’ 1969 version), while Brian’s unmistakable guitar lifts the record beyond simple homage.
EMI released the single in 1973 (with another 60s pop classic, “Going Back,” on the B-side), under the pseudonym Larry Lurex, a tongue-in-cheek reference to Gary Glitter. Though it failed to chart on initial release, it has since become legendary in Queen-lore and is now seen as a lost classic. In the early 90s, builders renovating a house in Liverpool stumbled across a job lot of pirate copies, at first using them as Frisbees, as they didn’t know what they’d found. Today, original copies fetch over £200.
Love Kills (1984)
By 1983, Freddie was looking to expand his creative output beyond the cycle of recording and touring with one of the world’s biggest bands. Now living in Munich, he would interrupt initial plans to record a solo album with intercontinental trips that allowed for him to try something new. In Los Angeles, he’d worked in the studio with Michael Jackson on some collaborative songs, but Freddie felt that his Queen commitments prevented him from completing them. “They were great songs, but the problem was time,” Freddie said. “We never seemed to be in the same country long enough to actually finish anything completely.” Indeed, one of their songs, “State Of Shock,” ended up as a duet between Jackson and Mick Jagger, after Freddie found himself unable to complete it.
However, as Freddie celebrated his 38th birthday, tucking into a five-foot birthday cake in the shape of a vintage Rolls-Royce, his stock couldn’t have been higher. Queen’s latest album, The Works, was one of nine Queen albums then in the UK Top 200, and his first solo single proper was released the same day as Queen’s “Hammer To Fall.”
“Love Kills” was recorded with pioneering Italian musician and producer Giorgio Moroder, as part of the soundtrack to the newly restored and colourized version of Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking 1927 movie, Metropolis. Freddie’s distinctive vocals mount over a lush bed of synthesizers, producing an effect that is both timeless and futuristic – a perfect match for the film.
A Top 10 hit in the UK (it even outsold his own band’s “Hammer To Fall”), “Love Kills” had actually originally been written for The Works. In 2014, Brian and Roger created a ballad version of the song for their Queen Forever compilation.
I Was Born To Love You/Stop All The Fighting (1985)
Following a grueling touring schedule in support of Queen’s 1982 Hot Space album (which embraced elements of funk, notably spawning the phenomenal hit single “Under Pressure” with David Bowie), Freddie was excited to further explore his funkier side. This time, however, he would do so away from the rest of the band (amusingly, the liner notes for his debut solo album, 1985’s Mr. Bad Guy, include special thanks to Brian, Roger, and John for not interfering).
Starting in 1983, Freddie devoted much of his energy to this labor of love, fitting it around his Queen commitments – not least recording their next album, The Works. Ever the perfectionist, he wasn’t prepared to start on the album until he knew he had collected enough material worthy of his name. “It has nothing to do with Queen,” Freddie said in 1985. “It’s just something I wanted to do on my own. I wanted to do it for a long while, it just took me all these years.”
The first single lifted from the album was a pumping, piano-driven, disco-pop gem, rich in synthesizers and euphoria, which reached No.11 on the UK singles chart in April 1985. From the opening multi-layered harmony cry of “An amazing feeling coming through,” “I Was Born To Love You” rejoices in its loved-up elation. Each verse ramps up the energy, before the middle-eight gives way to a pumping crescendo of synth play that brings the main refrain back in a triumph. The accompanying video saw Freddie, resplendent all in white, singing to a room of mirrors. Mr. Bad Guy was off to a flying start.
Made In Heaven/She Blows Hot And Cold (1985)
Freddie selected one of the most Queen-like songs from Mr. Bad Guy for his fourth solo single, the soaring ballad “Made In Heaven.” While much of his debut solo album embraced electronic dance music, “Made In Heaven” was in a style more familiar to Queen fans. Like the rest of the album, it was recorded in Munich: Freddie loved the freedom offered by the city, joking that it was perfect “apart from the fact that everyone speaks German!”
A rousing paean to fate, the song sees Freddie putting his lot in destiny’s hands, rolling with the punches, accepting pain as part of life – that both the good and the bad are vital (“I’m taking my ride with destiny/Willing to play my part/Living with painful memories/Loving with all my heart”). He sings of learning to pay the price, but also of playing his part in history; you can’t be all you want to be unless you’re prepared to get hurt. Freddie’s operatic vocal soars above his piano, itself encircled by glorious Fairlight strings, backed by a full rock band. “Bombastic” barely covers it.
David Mallet’s accompanying video was equally extravagant, positioning Freddie, dressed in black-and-red bondage, atop an explosive rocky outcrop and surrounded by ballet dancers, as though rising up from the depths of hell. As Freddie brings down torrents of rain, the rock opens to reveal the blue earth, with Freddie on top, before he takes his curtain call.
After Mercury’s death, the remaining members of Queen created a new version of the song, which, fittingly, gave its name to their final studio album.
Living On My Own/My Love Is Dangerous (1985)
Released while Queen were on tour in Australia, Freddie’s first solo album was a clear departure from the classic Queen formula. He had grown to love the joyful, celebratory sounds of the gay clubs he frequented with a passion, and this was reflected on many of the tracks he wrote for Mr. Bad Guy – not least “Living On My Own.”
Professionally, Freddie could ask for little more, singing to vast audiences across the world, while enjoying musical dalliances with the likes of David Bowie, Michael Jackson and Rod Stewart. But his personal life told a different story, and he addressed his loneliness on the third single from his album.
A pulsing, electronic dance track in the main, “Living On My Own” sees Freddie fuse his more traditional instrumentation with the sounds of the clubs, creating a dance-influenced track that remains very clearly the work of the Queen’s frontman. Into this already heady mix he throws elements of jazz, with the record’s scat breaks working particularly well in conjunction with the single’s video.
Shot at Freddie’s 39th birthday party, the video was a monochromatic, hedonistic extravaganza, with the 300 or so guests all dressed in black-and-white fancy dress (Brian May appears as a witch). But it’s the juxtaposition of these celebratory scenes against the song’s honest sentiment which takes “Living On My Own” up a level.
On much of Mr. Bad Guy, Freddie was more candid than he was on Queen records, where his persona was projected as part of a band. Solo, however, Freddie confesses that all is not paradise: that behind the façade there lies the isolation that fame often brings. “I get so lonely… living on my own.”
Love Me Like There’s No Tomorrow/Let’s Turn It On (1985)
Resident in Munich, Freddie recruited the best local musicians to create an album that lived up to the standards he’d set as the lead singer of one of the world’s biggest rock acts. Mr. Bad Guy was a real labor of love: “I’ve put my heart and soul into this album,” he said. “It has some very moving ballads – things to do with sadness and pain, but at the same time, they’re frivolous and tongue-in-cheek, because that’s my nature. I’ve wanted to do a solo album for a long time, and the rest of the band have encouraged me to do it.”
For Freddie, the lifelong search for a rewarding, lasting relationship would inspire many songs, but few as personal as “Love Me Like There’s No Tomorrow.” “Success has brought me world idolization and millions of pounds,” he said. “But it has prevented me from having the one thing we all need: a loving, ongoing relationship. Love is Russian roulette for me.”
“Love Me Like There’s No Tomorrow” is, in many ways, a typical Mercury ballad, not unlike Queen’s “It’s A Hard Life,” which was recorded around the same time. While it doesn’t sound mournful, it is nonetheless melancholy, as Freddie sings of the fading embers of a love about to die: “This is our last goodbye and very soon it will be over/But today just love me like there’s no tomorrow.” The song is said to have been written about Freddie’s close friend, Austrian actress Barbara Valentin, and is a poignant, personal farewell, tinged with regret. While Freddie is known for his flamboyant and extravagant epics, “Love Me like There’s No Tomorrow” remains deliberately understated.
Time/Time (Instrumental) (1986)
Following the success of Mr. Bad Guy, Freddie was keen to expand his horizons. He remained alert to whatever new opportunities might come his way – be they of his own making or, in the case of “Time,” when an old friend came knocking.
The Dave Clark Five were the first British Invasion group to follow The Beatles to the US and appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. Their leader, singer-drummer Dave Clark, was a close friend of Freddie’s (and would be with him the day he died). So it was no surprise that, when Clark unveiled his epic and groundbreaking 1986 West End musical, Time, he turned to his pal for a contribution.
The show itself was a mammoth production, starring Cliff Richard and Sir Laurence Olivier. Though Freddie didn’t appear on stage, he sang the title song on the accompanying album, which also featured Stevie Wonder, Julian Lennon, Dionne Warwick, and Leo Sayer.
Written by Clark and Jeff Daniels, “Time” isn’t a million miles away from A Kind Of Magic-era Queen, and is perfectly suited to Freddie’s unmistakable vocals. An ambitious, powerful ballad, the song begins with Freddie, accompanied by piano, singing that “Time waits for nobody,” in a message of hope for a future based on brotherhood. Over four minutes, the song builds to a huge climax, with Freddie eventually joined by a rousing finalé of voices before he adopts a gospel style for the ending, reminiscent of elements of “Somebody To Love.”
Released hot on the heels of Queen’s “A Kind Of Magic,” “Time” gave Freddie another Top 40 hit in his own right, and, with its theatrical ambition, paved the way for his final solo projects. Astonishingly, 33 years after its release, Dave Clark uncovered a stripped-down version of the song, complete with a brand new video. Released as “Time Waits For No One,” the raw, intimate performance offered a fresh look at a fascinating period in Mercury’s career.
The Great Pretender/Exercises In Free Love (Freddie’s Vocal) (1987)
With new creative impetus following his involvement with the Time stage show, Freddie put his all into a recording (and accompanying video) that took him to No.4 in the UK charts. With the benefit of hindsight, “The Great Pretender” can be seen as Freddie confessing the double life of the tortured artist – part confident, powerful frontman for one of the biggest bands of all time; part loner, destined to never find that one, true love with whom to share his triumphs and trials. As ever, Freddie’s motto was: the show must go on.
Freddie’s version of this R&B classic perhaps owes more to Gene Pitney’s 1969 rendition than The Platters’ 1955 original – though he very definitely claims it as his own. The arrangement is divine, with lush synth strings underpinning angelic doo-wop backing vocals. Freddie nails the delivery, giving it his all and embodying the song’s message; yet behind the glory is an undeniable sense of sadness. If ever a song was made for Freddie, surely it was this one.
The accompanying £100,000 video is itself a masterpiece, following the singer as he walks back through his career, with nods to the videos he made for “I Want To Break Free,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and other classics.
Perhaps the most poignant moment comes with footage of Freddie’s triumph at Wembley, saying his farewells to the crowd while draped in a regal crown and gown, as he sings, “Oh yes, I’m the great pretender, just laughing and gay like a clown/I seem to be what I’m not, you see, I’m wearing my heart like a crown.”
Barcelona (Single Version)/Exercises In Free Love (Montserrat’s Vocal) (1987)
Freddie Mercury was always a man of high tastes, with a long list of interests that included opera. His favorite singer was Pavarotti, and so, when the Italian tenor was performing Verdi’s Un Ballo In Maschera at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden, Freddie was in the audience. But it was the leading lady, Monsterrat Caballé, who stole his heart that night.
A few years later, during Queen’s Magic Tour, Freddie was asked on Spanish radio who his favorite singer was. He replied, “As far as I’m concerned, Montserrat Caballé has the best voice of anybody in existence.” Meanwhile, the soprano, a native of Barcelona, was looking for a song to perform as the anthem for the 1992 Olympics, which would be held in her hometown. She and Freddie got together, became friends, and soon set to work on what would be an entire collaborative album.
With Caballé’s schedule booked up years in advance, Freddie was left to coordinate the project – he would send Caballé cassettes of works in progress, with his falsetto guide vocal to be replaced by her soprano.
The title track, which duly became the anthem for the games, is simply staggering. Indulging all of Freddie’s ambitions of grandeur, “Barcelona” begins as an explosion of music and song, orchestral backing combining with synthesizers, before the whole thing is pared right back into a gentle duet between the two vocal powerhouses. Clearly both in awe of each other, the singers combine in majestic style, generously supporting one another as their melodies entwine, rising to a triumphant climax.
A No.8 hit in the UK in 1987, Freddie and Montserrat lip-synced a performance of the song at Le Nit festival the following year, welcoming the Olympic torch to Spain.
The Golden Boy (Single Edit)/The Fallen Priest (B-side Edit)
The Barcelona album, a collaboration between Freddie and the Catalan soprano Montserrat Caballé, opened doors for both singers. Just as her duet with Freddie on the monster smash title track introduced opera singer to a new audience, so did it allow Freddie to explore the dramatic style that he’d first dabbled with on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“With the Barcelona album, I had a little more freedom and a bit of scope to try out some of my crazy ideas,” Freddie later recalled. “Montserrat kept telling me that she found a new lease of life and a newfound freedom. Those were her own words, and I was very taken by it.”
“The Golden Boy,” the second single taken from Barcelona, begins with Freddie and Montserrat telling the story of a young man and girl whose lives intertwine, as they meet and fall in love. The first section features a strong narrative in the operatic style, leading into a tender second part: an intimate love song in which each takes a turn to tell the other the reasons for their infatuation. “I love you for your silence, I love you for your peace,” Freddie proffers, to which Montserrat responds: “I love you for your passion, I love you for your fire.” At this point, gospel choirs and chords explode; in the accompanying video, shot on stage in front of a live audience in 1988, Caballé can barely contain her ecstasy at the energy of the piece.
Like a true tragic opera, just as it seems as though there might be a happy ending, it all comes crashing down, as the opening section is reprised and revised to recount how the couple eventually fell apart: “The words that made them happy once now echoed – echoed as a curse.”
How Can I Go On (Single Version)/Overture Piccante (1989)
As far as Freddie was concerned, Monsterrat Caballé was unrivaled. To him, there was no greater honor than to duet with the woman he considered the greatest singer on the planet. When she returned the compliment, it made Freddie as proud as he ever was.
“She told me on the phone that she loves the way our voices sound together… and I was smiling from my ass to my elbow,” he recalled. “I sat at home like I’d just swallowed the canary, thinking, Ooh! There’s a lot of people who’d like to be in my shoes right now.”
The respect was mutual: “His technique was astonishing,” Caballé said. “No problem of tempo, he sung with an incisive sense of rhythm, his vocal placement was very good, and he was able to glide effortlessly from one register to another. He also had a great musicality.”
Continuing her praise, Caballé added, “His phrasing was subtle, delicate and sweet or energetic and slamming. He was able to find the right coloring or expressive nuance for each word.”
“How Can I Go On” is another of Freddie’s confessional songs, picking up from his terrific reworking of “The Great Pretender.” Here, as he sings, “When people frighten me, I try to hide myself so far from the crowd,” he is opening himself up. When he asks, “Who can make me strong in every way? Where can I be safe, where can I belong?” it’s hard not to think that, with his illness beginning to take hold, Freddie was pouring his heart out. It makes for an affecting ballad: melancholy tugging at the heartstrings as Freddie’s impassioned voice climbs; taking the lead, his sentiments are echoed by the supportive soprano.
In My Defence/Love Kills (Wolf Euro Mix) (1992)
Posthumously released (six years after it was recorded), “In My Defence” is the second Freddie Mercury single taken from Dave Clark’s lavish West End musical, Time. One of the biggest stars on the accompanying album, Freddie wasn’t part of the cast, though he did once tread the boards with the ensemble at the Dominion Theatre, performing at a gala performance for an AIDS charity in 1988 – Freddie’s final public appearance singing live.
Reportedly, it was his astonishing performance of “In My Defence” that convinced Clark to give him the title track on the album. Freddie had originally wanted to use Brian, Roger, and John on the recording, but Clark was keen on using the musicians he had booked. Reassuring Freddie that he would be happy, Clark even offered to pay for a re-recording with Queen if the results weren’t to the singer’s liking. As it turned out, the session guys did a great job, and Freddie loved the song.
A classic power ballad, “In My Defence” allows him to demonstrate his extraordinary range on a song that, in retrospect, seems far more personal than might be assumed, given its provenance. “I’m just a singer with a song,” he protests. “How can I try to right the wrong?” With resignation, Freddie explains that he’s just one person, caught up in a world tearing itself apart.
As Sir Laurence Olivier, one of the stars of Time, commented on hearing Freddie’s recording: “What a performance! This is a real actor.” Remixed and released as a single in 1992, “In My Defence” scored yet another Top 10 solo hit for Freddie.
Living On My Own (No More Brothers Radio Mix)/Living On My Own (Julian Raymond Album Mix) (1993)
Freddie Mercury died at his Kensington home on 24 November 1991, just over 24 hours after he released a press statement confirming that he was suffering from AIDS. He was 45 years old.
In the ensuing months and years, the remaining members of Queen and their manager, Jim Beach, would dedicate themselves to preserving Freddie’s memory. In April 1992, they held the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert For AIDS Awareness. In addition to the remaining band members, the show featured Elton John, George Michael, and David Bowie among a host of stars who paid moving tribute to the late singer in front of 72,000 fans at Wembley Stadium. Later that year, the anniversary of Freddie’s death was marked by the release of The Freddie Mercury Album, a collection of remixes and other solo material. The album peaked at No.4 in the UK and gave rise to the Top 10 single “In My Defence”; however, it was a remix of “Living On My Own” that would give Freddie his first solo No.1 hit.
This updated version of one of the stand-out tracks from his 1985 solo debut, Mr. Bad Guy, showcased Freddie’s pioneering music to a new audience. The music that had inspired much of Freddie’s first disco-influenced solo work had come out of the gay clubs; by 1993, it was no longer underground, so it made sense to give “Living On My Own” greater exposure than it was afforded on its original release. In this incarnation, the song sounds even more anthemic, as though the loneliness that Freddie expressed was universal – that somehow one could rejoice in the knowledge that even Freddie was vulnerable to isolation and the trials of modern life. That it topped the charts was a fitting tribute to a true pioneer.