When Brian May speaks to Total Guitar about Face It Alone – the previously unheard Queen track that was finally released this year, more than 30 years after it was recorded – his first words are in tribute to the writer and singer of that song.
“The crowning glory is, of course, Freddie’s voice,” he says. “It’s just magnificent. You hear that quality in his voice. You hear the passion in his voice. And he’s fearless. The way he bends some of those notes is so beautiful.”
Face It Alone is an extraordinary song with a poignant backstory. It was recorded during the year-long sessions for Queen’s 13th studio album, The Miracle, between January 1988 and January 1989, at a time when Freddie Mercury had been diagnosed HIV positive. As Brian recalled of that period: “We were dealing with Freddie’s deteriorating health, and pulling together to support him.”
Face It Alone didn’t make the cut for The Miracle, which was released in July 1989, yielding hit singles in I Want It All, Breakthru and The Invisible Man. The following album, Innuendo, was Freddie Mercury’s last act. The singer died on November 24, 1991.
In all these years, Face It Alone remained an unfinished demo track, preserved in the Queen vaults and unheard outside of the band’s inner circle. But this and five other previously unreleased tracks were rediscovered and remixed during the creation of a new boxset reissue of The Miracle. And as Brian says, the finished version of Face It Alone that has now been shared with a global audience is absolutely true to how it was recorded in the ’80s.
“One of the discussions we had, and one of the reasons we wanted to release it, is because it is all original,” he explains. “We did a bit of tidying up on it, and I think – well, I know – that if we’d worked on it more it would have changed. It might have become a six-minute epic. But I really like it the way it is. It’s very genuine. It speaks from the time.
“So we thought: yes, button it up, but don’t tart it up. Don’t embellish it. Just put it out as we hear it, but suitably cleaned up. So I didn’t go back in there and do new guitar or anything. It’s all exactly as it happened.”
This is an ensemble piece to which all four band members contributed: Freddie, Brian, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon. “It’s rare to find any fragments which encapsulate the four of us actually working together,” Brian says. “But John’s on there, absolutely live with Freddie. And Roger’s on there with his strange percussive atmospheres.”
The Miracle was the first Queen album on which, as an expression of unity, the writing credits for all songs were attributed to the group as a whole. But as Brian now says, “There was always one of us who was leading the party.” And with Face It Alone, that was Freddie. “He was coming up with the lyrics and leading us with this lovely stuff. And as we working on it, we were very enthused about it.”
The guitar solo is quintessential Brian May, as perfectly judged as the solos in signature Freddie Mercury songs such as Bohemian Rhapsody and Killer Queen.
“You can hear that I’ve played this solo basically as a means of getting from verse one to verse two,” Brian says. “It’s like: this is what I feel at the moment, and probably we’ll work on it later, and who knows what might happen? So the solo is very much in the moment. It’s me trying to be a voice next to Freddie’s and to extend the atmosphere and the message of the song. So it’s very real.”
Brian’s lead break in Bohemian Rhapsody – voted the greatest solo of all time by TG readers in 2021 – ran to nine bars. At seven bars, his solo in Face It Alone once again eschews traditional four-/eight-bar structures. But he says: “It wasn’t conscious in that way. It’s not a question of counting. But it is a conscious way of building things, so that you leave an open-ended place for the vocal to take over again. So conscious in an unconscious way, I think. That’s the way we build songs, so there’s space for the ideas to develop and then move on.”
He was, of course, playing the Red Special. “I’m so lucky that my guitar and amp have such a wide range of possibilities,” he says. “So if I turn the guitar way down, still through the treble booster, it becomes completely clean. And I can vary the amount of compression just by turning it up. There’s no tricks. It’s just the guitar, the treble booster and the wonderful AC30 amp. And that’s what it does. It does everything that I want it to do. And that hasn’t changed in the last 45 years.”
There are, however, a couple of details on which Brian is a little unsure. First, the weird, plucky sound to the arpeggios on this track. “The basic backing sound? Well, I don’t remember very clearly. So either that’s a keyboard or else it’s been converted to a keyboard sound through a device – and I don’t actually know. I see what you’re saying. I will have to go back and have a look!”
Second: was he playing that solo with a pick, or was it fingerstyle? It feels very personally delivered in the way that fingerstyle often does, but it also sounds like the clink of metal on string.
“Hmmm,” he says with a shrug. “You’re asking all the right questions and I haven’t got all the right answers! I would think it probably would be just with the finger. It’s quite a sensitive piece. Of course with the finger you can snap it, so it does get a kind of metallic edge to it, still, but it has a lot more feel. So I think it was done with the first finger.”
Here, he refers back to 1975 and the game-changing video for Bohemian Rhapsody. “It’s like you see in the Rhapsody video, very briefly. Sometimes it makes me smile, because I didn’t realise I was doing it that so far back. I was kind of hammering with the right hand instead of plucking.”
What he says, in conclusion, is that Face It Alone represents the very best of Queen. “It’s beautiful. And it’s absolutely original. It was done in the moment, in 1989 – the four of us in the studio.” And as he says of this and other material in this new box set, this is Queen as you’ve never heard them before.
“It’s a bit like watching The Beatles’ documentary Get Back,” he suggests. “The Beatles are still The Bible to me, so I loved watching that stuff, seeing how they did it. And this box set stuff is a little bit like that. There’s no video, but the soundscapes that you hear are very evocative.”
“There’s lot of moments where you hear us in the studio talking, moving things along, laughing. You hear things in development. All sorts of goodies. It’s like you’re a fly on the wall in those sessions in 1989. I think people who are really into us are going to just love what they hear.”
- The Miracle (Collector's Edition) is out now.