Freddie Mercury’s Lost Masterpiece “Barcelona”

Now that the world has proven how much it loves Freddie Mercury, it's time to go back and rediscover his masterpiece "Barcelona".
Barcelona CD

Something to gush about is the discovery of a hidden gem from one of your favorite artists. I’m hoping people will feel that way once they hear Freddie Mercury’s album “Barcelona”. Now that everyone’s proven how much they love Mr. Mercury by making “Bohemian Rhapsody” into a mega-monster hit, earning over $900 million at the box office, it’s time that we shine a light on the rest of his legacy and truly honor what an incredible songwriter, producer, and conceptualizer he was along with being an unparalleled singer and showman. Even if you have already heard “Barcelona”, stick around because I’ll reveal some facts about the making of the album that you may not know.

Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé perform at the Ku Club in Ibiza.

First, some background. As a singer and composer, Freddie threw most of his time and energy into Queen (“The Mothership”), which was incredibly rewarding artistically and commercially but not without conflict and strain between four equal members who often quarreled over each word and note in their songs. As a result, there were yearnings within the group as with many groups to do outside solo recordings (to do it “my way”), a notion fraught with danger in terms of the band breaking up or continuing in a different form. Somehow Queen was able to sustain its partnership which began in 1971 with the final line-up of Brian May, Roger Taylor, John Deacon, and Freddie Mercury until Freddie’s death in 1991.

Thus, the members of Queen dabbled with outside collaborations and the odd guest appearance (such as with Freddie working on three songs with Michael Jackson, only one of which has been commercially released), but contrary to what was depicted in the movie, it was Roger Taylor who released the first solo album, “Fun in Space”, followed by Brian May with his “Star Fleet Project”, long before Freddie’s first album, “Mr. Bad Guy”, in 1985. None had much commercial success; if they had, the group may have indeed broken up. Instead, they continued on after these projects, making a triumphant appearance at Live Aid, a new album called “A Kind of Magic” which became one of their most successful albums of all at least outside the U.S. and then embarking on a final tour, “The Magic Tour”.

Freddie’s health problems due to HIV/AIDS began to surface and he decided to quit touring, allowing him time to concentrate on his first long-term relationship with a man, Jim Hutton, and to contemplate further solo work. The seeds for “Barcelona” were planted in an interview he gave during a stop in Spain on the “Magic” tour, stating that his favorite singer was Montserrat Caballé, the legendary Spanish diva.

Freddie had come upon “La Superba”, as Montserrat was dubbed, almost by accident, attending a production at Covent Garden in 1983 to see Luciano Pavarotti whom he greatly admired, not knowing anything about Montserrat upon she arrived onstage. Upon hearing her voice, his jaw flopped onto the floor. Despite the opera parody of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Freddie was not actually an opera queen although over the subsequent years he developed a keen interest especially after becoming aware of Montserrat.

Montserrat Caballé was as famous in opera as Freddie was in rock. She made her professional debut in 1956, breaking through internationally when she replaced an ailing Marilyn Horne at Carnegie Hall and earning a 25-minute standing ovation, launching a legendary career thereafter. When the legend of all legends Maria Callas was asked who would be a worthy successor to her, she answered “Only Caballé “.

La Superba heard about Freddie’s kind words and a lunch meeting was arranged to take place in Barcelona, her hometown. She had already been approached to perform at the 1992 Olympics which were being held in Barcelona and the idea was floated for the Freddie and Montserrat to collaborate somehow for this project. This was a dream come true for Freddie and so he worked with his friend Mike Moran (musical director of Dave Clark’s stage musical “Time”, another outside project involving Freddie) to create a demo with song ideas to present to the Spanish singer. Meanwhile, Montserrat requested a complete set of the Queen albums to familiarize herself with his work.

Freddie was very nervous about meeting his idol, having heard about explosive tantrums and a penchant for keeping people waiting for hours on end. True to form, she was late but once there, the two singers got along famously, with him dubbing her “Montsy“. He handed her the demo cassette with the ideas they’d come up including “Exercises in Free Love” but also sang for her accompanied by Mike Moran on a piano set up in the corner of their private garden dining room.

Enchanted, Montserrat traveled to London a few days later for an engagement at the Royal Opera House and came to Freddie’s home, called Garden Lodge, staying up with Freddie until five in the morning, drinking champagne and singing Queen songs, despite the fact she had an early flight and normally went to bed at a reasonable hour to preserve the voice. Jim Hutton describes Montsy that night as being giggly and even camp, not at all the diva. A week later, Freddie went to see Montsy give a recital at Covent Garden where she surprised him by bringing Mike Moran on stage and announcing she was performing a song by two new friends, the spotlight falling upon an astonished Freddie.

They eventually formulated the song “Barcelona” and months before it was due to be released as a single, Freddie and Montserrat performed it at the Ku Club in Ibiza, receiving an ecstatic reaction from the Spanish audience. When the single was released, it hit No. 8 on the U.K. charts (later hitting No. 2 when it was re-released in 1992). Although the two different styles may jarring to most ears at first, once you see them perform together it makes sense. It’s a wonder to see how they truly adored one another and how truly camp they were together.

The single "Barcelona" by Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé.

Buoyed by the success of the single, they proceeded at Montserrat’s suggestion to work on an entire album which proved to be difficult due to Montserrat’s extremely demanding schedule, reportedly booked up five years in advance. When they could find time together, Freddie would try out ideas, shaping the song and lyrics and revising them until completion. At first, she didn’t understand, thinking she could fly in and sing from completed sheet music and then fly out. She was not familiar with Freddie’s work methods from Queen, where sometimes songs were brought to the group as just sketches or riffs with the intention that the group would jam or help mold the songs together. He told her that “Puccini and all these other composers are dead. I’m alive, dear”.

With that, the album became a true collaboration, with her even writing words for “Exercises in Free Love” which became “Ensueno”. This was liberating for Montsy where an opera singer creating music was not the norm. They decided to sing as they did normally, with Freddie’s baritone utilizing his full four-octave range as needed and Montserrat’s soprano floating above him, around him, sometimes in unison. The arduous process took 18 months, but worth the wait and becoming for many, Freddie’s best work outside of Queen.

The resulting album “Barcelona”, released in October 1988, boasted epic songs with meticulous production (mostly synthesized but made to sound like an orchestra), combining not only rock and opera somewhat like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” but also gospel, soul, Japanese music, and Queen’s trademark multitracked vocal sound. Freddie uses everything he has vocally, providing us with a treasure of his incredible gifts while she sends the entire effort into another dimension entirely. He doesn’t want to imitate an opera singer and she doesn’t want to be a rock singer; instead, they blend together in a true duets album as equals in their respective worlds.

Freddie and Montserrat performed one last time in 1988 at the Festival “La Nit” in front of an audience which included the King and Queen of Spain,
when Barcelona received the Olympic flag and torch from Seoul. However, Freddie was not feeling well and they mimed the performance, which was his last at least in public before he died in 1991. He continued to work, contributing to two more Queen albums and leaving enough vocals and songs to form the basis of a posthumous Queen album called “Made in Heaven”.

Although Freddie died before the 1992 Olympics took place, the song “Barcelona” was prominently featured during the broadcasts of the Games. Montserrat performed it in 1999 accompanied by Freddie in video form at a football championship match between Manchester and Munich at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona. Montserrat lived to the age of 85, passing away in October 2018, 30 years after her collaboration with Freddie.

The album “Barcelona” was re-released in 2012 in a special edition where the album’s original synthesized backing was stripped away and re-recorded with a full orchestra. Both versions are available (although a box-set version with outtakes, demos and videos is difficult to find), but to my untrained ears, there is not a considerable difference since the original was done with great skill and care although the new version does sound clearer and louder due to the remastering.

If you love Freddie’s voice, I would highly recommend you get the album (either version), but watch videos online to get the full effect of the collaborations, colossal personalities and talents from two different musical worlds coming together with great joy.

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