Ready Freddie? Mercury wows Madison Square Gardens in a blaze of light, 1977
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Who wants to live forever? The new frontiers of posthumous rock

In the next two decades there’ll be a mass departure of the people who brought us the best of rock’n’roll, but some bands are finding new ways to give their tunes eternal life.

All the rock stars are getting old and that’s a fact. I was talking to someone the other day who said he thought rock’n’roll, like the Italian Renaissance, was a concentrated historical movement – it was never meant to last. In the next two decades there’ll be a mass departure of the people who brought us the best of it, but the smarter bands have got their eye on the horizon and are finding new ways to give their tunes eternal life. When the Yes frontman Jon Anderson got ill, they replaced him with a younger model from a tribute act who could hit the high notes and run around. When Steve Perry of Journey needed a hip replacement, it was a young Filipino singer called Arnel Pineda who fronted the band for its comeback; the Glee generation probably thinks he sang the songs the first time round. When Anderson recovered his health, he made moves to rejoin Yes and the reply was, “Nah, you’re all right . . .” High on business acumen and low on sentimentality, these groups might represent the start of the great rock’n’roll franchise.

Queen, currently touring with American Idol’s Adam Lambert, have already gone there. Last year their drummer, Roger Taylor, went around the world training young players for an official tribute act, then sent them off on tour. It is tempting to imagine a distant future in which, at any one point, there will be a “Queen” playing in a town near you, their set-list controlled by the band’s estate – or just the brain of Brian May in a glass case. After all, why shouldn’t our best rock songs, the greatest cultural export of our age, be performed 200 years hence by other people, just as Beethoven’s Fifth is funnelled through different orchestras? Who will weep over losing the original members of Queen, if future bands are backed by a giant pixelated version of Freddie on stage?

As studio technology gets ever slicker we are also looking at a Vanilla Sky future of posthumous collaborations, of voices frozen and thawed out in later eras. This month, the titles of two collections suggest this brave new world: Queen Forever and Barry Manilow’s My Dream Duets. It’s strange to look back on similar projects from the 1990s – the Beatles’ “Free As a Bird”, or Natalie Cole’s “duets” with her dead father – and think what eerie wonders they were. Now we’re all so much more mawkish, there is nothing spooky or naff about rock from beyond the grave. Dweezil Zappa’s live shows playing with Frank are jubilant feasts of technical brilliance. In 2012, a hologram version of the murdered rapper Tupac performed with Snoop Dogg at the Coachella festival; there were even rumours he’d go on tour. (In fact, Tupac was already well into his musical afterlife: after he died, his band mates mixed his ashes with marijuana and smoked them.)

Barry Manilow, now 71, has performed numbers with many stars in his time, the Bettes Midler and Davis and Dionne Warwick among them. Last year, he sat down to write a wish-list of fantasy singing partners he was yet to have and realised that most of them were dead. No matter – because here they are, lassoed from the underworld and dragged into his “virtual recording studio”.

The orchestra was stripped from original recordings and the voices isolated anew. Manilow then spent two months creating duets out of songs that were not duets to begin with – reorchestrating them, changing keys, making more extravagant endings, and so on. He told the Huffington Post that, alone in the studio, surrounded by the voices of the departed, he often reached for the tissues: “It would be my dream to have been in the music business when they were at their peaks . . . This is when they were young and beautiful and in their prime, all of them.”

I find it touching that even Barry Manilow fantasises about being part of a musical era to which he came too late. “It doesn’t have to be witty or smart/Just as long as it comes from the heart,” says a scratchy Jimmy Durante, recorded in 1947, on the opening track – and then, in a routine straight out of It Happened in Brooklyn, he “teaches” Barry to sing. Manilow (who is no actor) throws out awkward, wooden little comments such as: “Ah, I get it, Jimmy!” and “But what chance do I have, singing duets with all these legends?!?”

My Dream Duets is pure American kitsch: death-defying showbiz fantasy. It reminds me of a production I saw advertised at the cheap end of the Strip in Vegas, called Barbra and Frank: the Concert That Never Was. It is brilliantly creepy. For a start, most of these people didn’t go peacefully in the night. Here’s a duet with the teenage Frankie Lymon, soon dead of a heroin overdose in his grandmother’s bathroom; then Mama Cass (ham sandwich/heart attack); then Whitney Houston (drowned in the bath); then John Denver (crashed his own plane).

“Tell ’em, Frankie!” Manilow cries, performing a complicated fugue along with the dead boy. “Aaah sing to us, Whitney!” “Take me home, John!” And my favourite – “Dusty, don’t go . . .”

The Whitney duet (“I Believe in You and Me” from 1996) sounds like a real-time collaboration, though he has said it was difficult fitting in with her “church style”. The “contributions” by Marilyn Monroe and Louis Armstrong sound more remote because those ridiculously well-known songs (“I Wanna Be Loved By You” and “What a Wonderful World”) are too much theirs to allow for a duet reworking – even with the addition of spurious vibes and new words. “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart”, with Judy Garland (“my Judy!”), is far more successful because Manilow sounds so thrilled. And “Moon River” is deliciously camp, he and Andy Williams “two drifters, off to see the world . . . after the same rainbow’s end”.

Forever is not Queen’s first posthumous album: in 1995, four years after Freddie Mercury’s death, they released Made in Heaven using material that was quite literally unfinished – not because it was dumped on the cutting-room floor but because Mercury had died while they were recording it. On several songs (such as the hair-raising “Mother Love”), Brian May and Roger Taylor were left to sing the final verses.

Queen have one of those tribal fan bases that’ll buy anything they release: they’re very good at making you go out and get each new CD by putting one new track in among dozens of things you’ve already got. Of the 20 songs on Forever, which are loosely based on a theme of love, 17 are very available, the best being the Falklands-inspired “Las Palabras de Amor” and the darkly dramatic “Don’t Try So Hard”, a late song that features notes only dogs can hear.

The main talking point here has been the inclusion of a track Freddie Mercury recorded with Michael Jackson, now finished off by the band and the producer William Orbit. The Jackson duets were apocryphal things when I was growing up. The pair met in 1981 when “Another One Bites the Dust” was a huge disco hit: Mercury’s voice, particularly funky at that point, perfectly matched Jackson’s and they recorded three tracks. But then there was a fight. Some said the fight was about cocaine. Others said it was because Jackson insisted on bringing his llama into the studio. Whatever, the door of the vault slammed shut and the songs were never released, until now.

“There Must Be More to Life Than This”, a gutsy ballad, first appeared (minus Michael) on Freddie’s first solo album. Queen, like Genesis, were so close-knit that when one member went off to make a solo record he would ask the rest of the band to play on it; so here they all are. Michael Jackson sings the final verse. It works fine – the melody is sweet, like something from his “Heal the World” era – but he is slightly drowned out by the ever-bombastic band. There are two further Jacko duets out there, which presumably means that two other compilation CDs will emerge.

The real appeal of Queen Forever is a track called “Let Me in Your Heart Again”, which opens the album. A proper lost song, written by Brian May, it’s a wholesome, throbbing, country-tinged rock ballad that sounds – very cleverly – like it was recorded by the entire band in one room in 1984, even though it wasn’t. It’s given a heavy-heavy, classic rock wash and Mercury’s voice is so “present” it makes your ear hair rattle.

When my brother and I were teenagers we were so familiar with the melodic DNA of this band that we’d often dream entire “new” Queen songs from start to finish, and wake up disappointed to find that we had, in fact, heard everything. Thirty years on from its recording, this song is a bit like stepping into one of those dreams – a place both familiar and completely strange. An alternate reality where, as Barry might put it, “They were young and beautiful and in their prime, all of them!” 

“Queen Forever” is out now on Virgin Records. Barry Manilow’s “My Dream Duets” will be released on 25 November on Decca/Universal

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.