There is little doubt that one of my greatest regrets in life is never having seen Queen live. Freddie Mercury, for me, remains one of the greatest vocalists of all time. As a performer and frontman, he is arguably without peer, even in death. David Bowie, who thankfully is still with us, is up there. When the two of them combined for the 1981 track Under Pressure, a song of the most magnificent quality was produced.
There are a number of things that are brilliant about this track, not least John Deacon‘s bassline, which Vanilla Ice loved to much he sampled it for his biggest hit, Ice Ice Baby. But vocally, the track is as close to perfect as you can get in the studio, I’d say. And we’re talking long before the days of digital production, ProTools and auto-tune. Just listen to this isolated vocal track from the record, and tell me you don’t feel anything.
The lyrics of a song can be meaningful, deep, thought-provoking, emotional, and any number of other things. But without an adequate delivery, they are often barely even noticed. That delivery in part is the responsibility of the whole band, the pressure, if you’ll pardon the pun, on vocalists to deliver the message is immense. For Mercury, though, it was never an issue. The man was simply born to sing. He died too soon, a result of his carefree lifestyle, but for those of us who were lucky enough to be alive when he was making records and strutting the boards of stages around the world, we must remain eternally grateful.
I remember has a youngster watching Queen’s seminal live Wembley concert of 1986 over and over again. It was an obsession. I marvelled mostly at Roger Taylor’s work on the drums, but also Freddie’s apparent ease to captivate an audience of about 100,000 people, whom he held in the palm of his hand for every second of that show. It’s probably his most famous performance, but almost certainly not the only one he delivered.
I wonder if young artists today ever look back at this. Given some of the truly woeful music we hear on the radio, it’s doubtful. There is still so much to be learned from Mercury, Bowie and the many other classic musicians of the time.
As my good friend and composer Fil Eisler said in a link that pointed me to this vocal track, “Best example ever of how auto-tune is killing music by lowering the bar and allowing people become accustomed to the bland.
“Here’s what a REAL vocal sounds like,” he continues. “If this doesn’t make the hairs on your neck stand, you’re either deaf, dead or don’t have a neck.”
Fil’s observation of auto-tune allowing people to become “accustomed to the bland” is spot on. Many of today’s mega acts are fantastic performers, but can they actually sing in the way Freddie did, and Bowie still does? Do they feel every word pouring from their mouths? When Miley Cyrus screams about being hit by a wrecking ball, does she actually believe it? I’m not so sure.
I’ve been driven to tears by some of the things I’ve heard Freddie do. Is This The World We Created? from the Wembley show mentioned above is a perfect example. Just watch it.
It still makes me weep, as does the loss of Freddie himself. May he rest in peace, while we continue to fill the air on Earth with the very special sound of his voice.