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01 December 2013 by Cole Moreton, Montreux
Cole Moreton is electrified by a visit to the late Queen frontman’s old haunt, now open to the public for the first time.
The studio in Montreux, Switzerland, where Freddie Mercury made his final recording is being opened to the public for the first time, with a launch tomorrow to coincide with World Aids Day. Take a look inside the studios where Queen recorded many of their best known songs…
The music drops out and the voice of Freddie Mercury is left alone to soar in the speakers. This is the last recording the Queen singer made and is the sound of a man railing against the sickness that would soon kill him. I’m listening to his raw, untreated vocal while standing on the spot where he sang, in a studio on the shores of Lake Geneva. It is electrifying.
“We all knew there wasn’t much time left,” says Brian May, the Queen guitarist who was at that session in May 1991. “Freddie wanted his life to be as normal as possible. He obviously was in a lot of pain and discomfort. For him the studio was an oasis, a place where life was just the same as it always had been. He loved making music, he lived for it.”
Freddie Mercury in the Montreux studio in 1982 (Peter Hince) Now the studio in Montreux, Switzerland, where that final recording was made is being opened to the public for the first time, with a launch tomorrow to coincide with World Aids Day.
Entrance to the Queen Studio Experience is free but fans will be asked for a donation to the Mercury Phoenix Trust, the charity set up in the singer’s name after he died of bronchial pneumonia brought on by Aids in November 1991. They will be able to see his extravagant stage outfits, read the lyrics he wrote in a scrawling hand on scraps of paper and use a replica of the old control desk to remix his last song as they choose – including the ability to strip back everything else so it sounds as if Freddie is in the room.
“I was surprised at how moving it was to come back in here and listen to him again as he was,” says Justin Shirley-Smith, the assistant engineer for those last sessions. “This is hard to explain to people, but it wasn’t sad, it was very happy. He was one of the funniest people I ever encountered. I was laughing most of the time, with him. Freddie was saying [of his illness] ‘—- that. I’m not going to think about it, I’m going to do this.’ We all were.”
For years, fans have argued about which was Freddie’s last song, with members of the band and studio engineers contradicting each other. Now, The Telegraph can disclose, the mystery has been solved. The dates were not always written down, but after searching through the labels on old boxes of reel to reel tape, Mr Shirley-Smith says it was definitely Mother Love, recorded between May 13 and 16 1991. The song expresses a longing to be cared for and protected. “I can’t take it if you see me cry,” sings Mercury. “I long for peace before I die.”
Brian May says that is why the ailing singer bought a flat by the lake in Montreux. “Particularly towards the end of his life he was pursued by the press and curious people. He just wanted peace and quiet, to be able to get on with what he did. It was very convenient in Montreux because people got used to the sight of us and nobody made a fuss.”
The studio is surprisingly small, tucked away around the back of the Casino de Montreux. Queen owned it from 1979 until the early Nineties, but May and the drummer Roger Taylor have now collaborated to restore the old control room, with the same stone-clad walls and intimate atmosphere. This was where the band recorded Under Pressure with David Bowie, as well as many other songs including A Kind of Magic, Who Wants To Live Forever? and One Vision. The four members of Queen sold more than 300 million albums and had 18 number one singles – but in the spring of 1991, they knew their frontman was facing the end. The rest of the band put themselves on standby in the Swiss town, ready to record when the singer felt able to come in, for an hour or two at a time.
May says: “He just kept saying. ‘Write me more. Write me stuff. I want to just sing this and do it and when I am gone you can finish it off.’ He had no fear, really.”
Mercury was walking with a cane by then and could not stand for long. He chose to sing in the control room, with his closest friends. That afternoon he sang a verse at a time, with three attempts at each.
His vocal is surprisingly strong at times. “I don’t know where he found the energy,” says May. “Probably from vodka. He would get in the mood, do a little warm up then say, ‘Give me my shot.’ He’d swig it down ice cold. Stolichnaya, usually. Then he would say, ‘Roll the tape’. He still had astonishing power in his lungs at that point, I really don’t know where it came from. The song starts low and gentle, but Mercury chose to push himself and go higher. We looked at each other and knew there was a mountain to climb. That’s when the vodka really went down. He said, ‘I will hit these notes.’ And he did. It was a wonderful performance.”
When the lead vocal is isolated in the studio you can hear his vulnerability
“I don’t want pity,” he sings, “Just a safe place to hide.”
Mercury was exhausted by the effort, adds May.
The other members of the band worked on while Mercury rested in his apartment. “We always ate together. That was lovely. Then the day came when he said, ‘Look, I’m going back to London for a while.’ It was always ‘a while’. Nothing was ever ‘the end’.”
He went back to London for the last time in early November 1991 and died at his home in Kensington on the 24th. May was in London when he heard the news, along with the rest of Queen.
“We were all wondering if it was an illusion, and he was going to be cured. You can’t really take these things in properly. Then we got the phone call. It was surreal. Even though we had been preparing for such a long time, it still didn’t feel possible,” says May. “We all got together and talked and had a drink and then saw it announced on the TV. Strangely enough, that was when it seemed real for the first time. You thought, ‘Oh my God, he really has gone and everybody knows now. It can’t be taken back’.”
Later, the recordings Mercury had left were pieced together for the posthumous album Made In Heaven, one of Queen’s biggest sellers.
“A lot of the time it feels as if Freddie is still with us, even though physically he is not,” says May, who is working with Roger Taylor on a new film about the band.
“Sacha Baron Cohen was due to play Mercury, but that association ended over the summer. We had a great meeting the other day. We seem to have our director and I think an announcement will be made any day. We think we have our Freddie, and he’s great. We’ve seen the screen tests. I’m not going to tell you who he is, but I think everybody is guessing.”
Reports suggest it may be Ben Whishaw, who will have big boots (but tiny Lycra trousers) to fill.
There’s a bronze statue of the singer by the lake in Montreux, where fans leave gifts and candles. A few steps away, back in the studio, the voice of Freddie Mercury disappears and is replaced by that of Brian May, finishing the song on behalf of his friend.
“My body’s aching but I can’t sleep, I’m coming home to my sweet mother love.”
(With thanks to Telegraph)