Brian May on unearthing an unreleased Freddie Mercury track and how The Beatles: Get Back inspired the reissue of Queen's 1989 album The Miracle

Brian May
(Image credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns)

Leading into the massive supporting tour for 1986's A Kind of Magic, Queen found themselves as they always had: steeped in magnificent splendor.

But by the end of what would be their final live performance with Freddie Mercury in Knebworth Park in 1986, Queen had reached a fork in the road. With Mercury dealing with a life-threatening diagnosis and guitarist Brian May battling personal issues, Queen's perpetually swarming operations were all but halted for nearly two years.

And then, in early 1988, the clouds parted, and Queen – as they always had – came together through positivity, optimism, and a remembrance of the legacy they had built. Now resolute in the face of the unknown, Mercury and May joined bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor at Olympic Studios to begin the sessions for what would become 1989's The Miracle.

“I think we came back together,” guitarist Brian May recalls. “We became a unit again as far as writing, and I think the newfound policy of sharing credits really worked. It worked to the point that, for the first time in what felt like forever, all four of us were highly visible on every track. 

“It came from us working away, putting in ideas, sharing discussions, and bringing things to life together. Looking back, The Miracle is very colorful and full of all our collective talents as opposed to having separate works brought together after the event. It's very much a group album, which I love. And I have to say that I still find that very satisfying. I think in many ways The Miracle might be Queen's most cohesive album of the '80s."

Some 33 years later, the remaining members of Queen are preparing to reissue The Miracle through a stunning boxset featuring lost tracks, outtakes, live cuts, and more. With vinyl sales continuing to grow and Queen's legacy as stout as ever, it would be all too easy to make a connection between the two, and in the eyes of May, the assertion may have some weight to it.

“As far as vinyl helping new fans discover Queen, I've never asked myself that question," says May. “But yes, I think it could be because it's been recent that the vinyl revival has happened, and there does appear to be some trends. We've noticed while touring recently that we have a fantastic new contingent of fans who seem to have a full understanding of our stuff. Of course, they're listening to and finding us digitally, but I do think the vinyl revival could have something to do with that, too.”

While Freddie Mercury has been gone for nearly 31 years, his legacy still looms larger than life. For collectors of physical media – specifically vinyl – reissues such as The Miracle box set serve as an integral opportunity to fully immerse oneself in the grandiose music of one of Queen. 

Moreover, when it comes to a band such as Queen, it's easy to get lost in the effervescent bursts of glitter-bomb grandeur, but The Miracle reissue provides a unique opportunity for fans to see Queen in a different light.

“This record came at a difficult time in our history,” May recalls. “But I think that now I'm more friendly disposed to it than I was before we did this reissue. Because I discovered I liked it a lot more than I realized, and that was a bit surprising to me. I think partly because of the good feeling about being in a band that it brings forth and partly because I'm looking at it with new eyes so many years later. 

“But as far as its importance, honestly, I don't know. I'd like to think that The Miracle provided much-needed cohesion, which got us to the next place; I think that's probably the truth.”

"Regardless, though, one of my favorite sayings is everything is the way it's meant to be. This sometimes means that when you're facing a lot of shit, it doesn't always make a lot of sense. And so, it helps to just say, ‘Yeah, this is the way it's meant to be because this is getting me to the next place that I need to get to.’ And I guess that's what I feel about The Miracle, but it was full of joy as well. I thank God for that.”

Now able to reflect on the unique legacy of The Miracle, Queen's Brian May settles in to recount the origins of the album, Queen's renewed interband dynamics, his love for vinyl, and a whole lot more.

We're on the precipice of the reissue for The Miracle; what was the project's impetus?

“Well, I guess we're working our way through all the classic stuff driven by the fact that we don't know what we're going to find. And while nobody has a full recollection of those sessions, we do know that they were very fertile and that lots of things were started but never finished. 

“So, this project was very effective in that we found a lot of tracks, which, even though they hadn't been finished at the time, we were now able to finish and put them into a state where they're palatable for the public. It's also nice to go back and polish stuff up and bring things into the new media. Because you can do a lot more in terms of quality now than you could then.

“So, without wanting to remix the originals, there's a lot we can do in terms of mastering, and it's been fun to go back to the multitrack and investigate what could have happened. In other words, what different tastes could have been used, what different arrangements, different guitar solos, different vocal performances, and lyrics; there's a whole wealth, there's a whole universe of stuff to investigate.

We basically said, ‘Let's go back and see how things were back then and then see about communicating that to people now’

“So, we've been able to go back and put all of that into a form that I feel is entertaining. And I think we all felt quite inspired by Peter Jackson's revisiting of The Beatles footage, so there's a similar feeling here. We basically said, ‘Let's go back and see how things were back then and then see about communicating that to people now.’”

What was Queen's collective mindset as you entered the studio?

“It was very optimistic. I think we felt like we'd found a new way of reading one another. Because we have been through a little bit of an extreme estrangement there, with people going off and doing their own thing. We came back, and we decided to share the publishing of all the songs. 

“So, that meant we'd share authorship, credit, and monies, which was a very grown-up thing to do. And on the one hand, I'm surprised it hadn't happened earlier. But on the other hand, I'm quite surprised it happened at all because you have to give up quite a lot to make that decision.

“When you decide to do something like that, you have to give up your baby and share it with your partners. But it was a wonderful decision because it freed us up and inspired us to work much more openly with each other. 

“It allowed us to be more dispassionate about choosing what's going to be done, what's going to be used as singles, running orders, etc. All those decisions became much more pleasant when we decided to share ownership of everything.”

Queen

(Image credit: Paul Rider)

How would you say that newfound unity was best reflected in the tracks featured on The Miracle?

“It got us to work in the studio together. We were now in one room all at the same time, which might sound kind of obvious, but that hadn't been the case for quite a while. To that point, we'd gotten into a habit of working in different studios at different times and then pulling stuff together. 

“But in this case, we all got back together in there and had fun. You can hear it on things like Was It All Worth It and Khashoggi's Ship. These are all things that we kicked around from an initial idea and were bouncing ideas off each other in the same room, ‘Okay, you do this, and I'll try this. Can you do that? I'll do this.’ 

“It was a lot like the old days, the same way that we made those early Queen albums. It really was a rebirth of interactive playing for us.”

Queen had just performed what would be its last show with Freddie Mercury at Knebworth Park in 1986. Did that influence the sessions?

“Well, we didn't know that we weren't going to be performing anymore. I think Freddie possibly knew it, but I don't think we did as a band. The way I looked at it was that Freddie was known to go through various moods and mindsets, and I felt that he would bounce back again, not realizing that he was wrestling with something which we didn't know about.”

What can you tell me about the recently unearthed track, Face It Alone?

“I can tell you that I don't remember much about it. [Laughs]. There were so many fragments of songs that were started but never finished. And, of course, I played on it at the time; what you hear is all contemporary with that time, and we didn't add anything new. 

“So, obviously, Freddie put down a verse and chorus, essentially, and I think I can imagine myself saying, ‘Okay, let me have a crack at the solo and see if it moves the song on to towards the next verse.’ And that's probably as far as it got.

“I can also tell you that there were a few vocal takes. So, when we were putting this together, we resisted the temptation to try to make it into the epic that it probably would have become if we'd spent time on it in the original days. 

“I like it because of its simplicity, and you can hear Freddie's voice coming through so beautifully. His passion and the extraordinary sound from his God-given voice; it's something which definitely moves me. And we all felt that when we heard it back. It's been very warmly received by folks out there, so I'm glad that we put it out as that first teaser from The Miracle reissue.”

How about Too Much Love Will Kill You? Why was that pulled from the original release?

“Well, there's a whole long story about Too Much Love Will Kill You, but I had written the song on my own with a couple of other people. By my own, I mean away from the group because I was so depressed that I couldn't have anything to do with any of our public life. And so it was the only song that I wrote during that period. 

“I was in a bad way because I was struggling with personal issues, and I recorded it for my solo album but never thought of it as a track for Queen. But at some point, I played it to the boys, and Roger [Taylor], John [Deacon], and Freddie; they loved it and said, ‘This has to be a Queen track. We have to do a Queen version of it,’ which I was very happy about. 

Freddie, probably quite rightly, put his foot down and said, ‘I'm not doing this.’ And so, an impasse was reached, and the song came off the album

“And so, I thought, ‘Well, let's treat it differently. Let's make it special.’ So, it received the big, bombastic, dramatic Queen treatment, whereas my version is quite understated and small, I suppose.

“But what I didn't realize was Freddie was seeing it from a different perspective. He was seeing it from the point of view of his own life, and then his own life, of course, was something only he knew about, and we didn't. 

“So, looking back on it, I have a very different appreciation of what he was putting into his interpretation of the song. And I think people tend to remember the song now as Freddie saying something to himself, as opposed to me saying it for different reasons. But that's all good; songs have a way of developing their meanings as they go along and evolve. And I'm very fond of the Queen version.

“As for why it didn't make it onto the original version of The Miracle, it came down to a dispute about the publishing. Because I had written the song with two other people, and they both wanted a third or something like that. So, now we were sharing the publishing with those two people and the boys in Queen, and it got a bit messy. 

“It would have been something where Freddie would have gotten a quarter of one-third, and he basically said, ‘I'm not agreeing to that.’ I could see his point, and we were all very frustrated. And I felt even worse about it than he did because I put a year of my life into that song. But Freddie, probably quite rightly, put his foot down and said, ‘I'm not doing this.’ And so, an impasse was reached, and the song came off the album.”

Brian May

(Image credit: Simon Fowler)

As you were putting this reissue together, has your perspective changed knowing that as unified as you were, Freddie was battling something in secrecy?

“In many ways, yes. Looking back on things, it is quite hard to fathom, really, because Freddie was an eternal optimist. And even with all that he was going through – which we knew nothing about at the time – he always came in with so much positivity. 

“And as we were going back through these tracks and remembering the sessions, those were some of the things that really did strike me. And, of course, one of my favorite Freddie tracks of all time is The Miracle. I love that song because, on that track, you hear nothing but joy, positivity, lightness, and humor. 

“It's gorgeous that Freddie was able to do that even though he was battling dark stuff underneath. You would never know. You could never hear it at that time. It's just one of the many marvelous things about Freddie, his ability to radiate positivity and optimism no matter what he was going through internally.”

Did the revival of physical media affect your decision to reissue The Miracle?

“Not really, no. We are aware of the revival of vinyl, but it's also something that never went away for us. First and foremost, what's wonderful about this reissue – especially the vinyl – is that you get to hear the record as it would have sounded had certain things not happened, like Too Much Love Will Kill You being removed. 

There is also something undefinable about the sound of vinyl. I know that they can make digital sound great, but I think your body still knows the difference

“But we're very old school, and all of us still love vinyl; there's something about it which you can't quite capture in the digital world. And I think every album we put out has been available on vinyl somehow, so that's not a new thing for us at all.”

Do you collect vinyl yourself?

“Yes, but not at a great rate anymore. But I will say that all the albums I've collected are still very much a part of my daily life. I love my vinyl. When I want to relax, I put vinyl on. I don't generally put CDs on. I think partly it's the feel, and it's partly the fact that you get a nice big sleeve where you can read and enjoy the pictures. And you get to physically touch this beautiful thing, treasure it, smell it, and put the needle on in a very physical way. 

“But I must say that there is also something undefinable about the sound of vinyl. I know that they can make digital sound great, but I think your body still knows the difference. Because when it comes to vinyl, I think your body is a vital piece of gear, and it reacts much differently to analog stimulation. I don't know why, but that's my theory of what goes on.”

Is there a piece of Queen memorabilia you've held onto that means the most to you?

“Very interesting question. Well, I have one of the original robots from News of the World, which stands about four feet high and holds the album cover. [Laughs]. He's quite a treasured relic, I must say. He's even more treasured to me because I lost him. 

“What happened was I moved house, forgot that he was in the attic, and I left him, which caused me great upset. And then, I was able to come across one secondhand from a collector, and I kind of kid myself into thinking that he is the original guy that I had. 

“I don't know if he is or not, but I tell myself that he's the original ‘Frank’ that I had in those days. I should mention that we call him Frank, and I'd say that he's the most meaningful piece that I have.”

Freddie has been gone for some time now, but the music of Queen is as relevant as ever. To what does the music of Queen owe its longevity?

“That's a good question and not an easy one to answer. I think the songs have a lot to do with it. And the fact that we were aware enough to realize the value of each other's songwriting. 

You can have all the songs you want and all that dedication, but it still might not have worked. But by the grace of God, we were fortunate to be in some of the right places at the right time

“With that, we were able to turn our competitive spirit into something positive all along the way. Songs like We Will Rock You, We Are the Champions, Another One Bites the Dust, and Radio Ga Ga became a massive part of the public consciousness, not just for Queen fans but for the people in the street. 

“They hear these things, and they then become part of the soundtrack of their life because of sporting events, weddings, and various things that are happening. 

“So, it's been wonderful for us that we've become written into people's lives so ubiquitously, I suppose I could say. And then a lot of it would be the performance aspect of it. We were consistently a live act throughout our career, and we took it very seriously. 

“We would record an album and immediately take it around the world as far as we could and then go back into the studio and record another album. We were utterly dedicated to that flow of consciousness for many years, and I must say, it took a lot of dedication. 

“Because you can have all the songs you want and all that dedication, but it still might not have worked. But by the grace of God, we were fortunate to be in some of the right places at the right time. And we were good enough to take our chances when they came along.”

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Andrew Daly is a contributing writer at Guitar World. In addition to currently working with Copper Magazine, Goldmine Magazine, Ultimate Guitar, Andrew is the founder and editor of VWMusic, a successful rock-oriented outlet launched in 2019. Andrew has interviewed the likes of Joe Perry, Stone Gossard, Paul Stanley, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Tommy Thayer, and many more. While his instrument of choice may be the drums, Andrew is a lover of all things guitar. Some of his favorite bands are KISS, Oasis, Spread Eagle, and Starz.