Ready Freddie? Mercury wows Madison Square Gardens in a blaze of light, 1977
Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump