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Get Marty Willson-Piper on the phone once and you’ll never forget it.
My 2018 conversation with the English musician – best known for his former decades-long membership in Australian legends The Church – was a sprawling ride colored by the man’s undeniable love of music. Even as a fellow sound obsessive, I found it difficult to keep up with the man as he bounced from praising ’80s Hard Rockers Kingdom Come and obscure living treasure Robert Wyatt to detailing his dreams for his stunningly extensive In Deep Music Archive project. And when he got to discussing his then-in-progress Noctorum release (The Afterlife) with longtime friend and collaborator Dare Mason and his various musical plans for the future…Good God! Thirty years after arguably The Church’s greatest success in the States, he was still firing away in as many sonic directions as possible with the same enthusiasm as someone recording their first single.
Willson-Piper’s chat-ending rundown of his 2019 plans included a mention of work on the second album from MOAT, his project with Niko Röhlck of Weeping Willows. Now, the first taste of what is to come from that forthcoming release (Poison Stream, due in early 2021) has arrived in the form of “Gone By Noon.”
From the morose opening keys to Willson-Piper’s concluding croon of the song’s title, “Gone By Noon” (which finds him passing guitar duties to Röhlck, who also plays keyboards, in favor of handling the bass) is a decidedly somber affair. While Willson-Piper’s past work with The Church often hid lyrical gloom behind shimmering arrangements (1988’s “Reptile” is a prime example), there are no grey shades – neither musically nor lyrically – to be found here. The sense of loss and disillusionment is direct and palpable:
Silence spills like a wave in the dark
The films you play
Black and white
A final scene – crying
And you’re gone.
The “black and white” reference is perfect, as “Gone By Noon” is 3am noir music tailor-made for full ashtrays, empty bottles and that call you’ll never receive again.
Full marks to the track’s other performers – Mason on additional keyboards, Eddie John on drums and Olivia Willson-Piper on backing vocals – for so brilliantly contributing to the emotional depth of Willson-Piper and Röhlcke’s latest creation.
Have a listen below (then purchase via your favorite digital music platform):
|Queen + Adam Lambert (Photo: Brohan Hohnjec)|
“I'll face it with a grin.
I'm never giving in.
On with the show.”
When the late Freddie Mercury (born on this day in 1946) sang the above words with every ounce of his being on “The Show Must Go On,” the closing track of Queen’s 1991 album, Innuendo, he and the other members of Queen – guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor – were well aware that the sentiment would soon carry a deep significance far beyond the recording studio walls. When Innuendo was released that February, it launched what appeared to be a typical series of events for Queen. Videos were filmed, singles were released and critics either loved the album or hated it – just as it had always been throughout Queen’s long-running career. But when Mercury succumbed to AIDS nine months later, the album’s name and several of its song titles and lyrics were reevaluated. Although the album is full of sonic treasures (making it perhaps Queen’s most consistently strong release since their ’70s heyday), it was “The Show Must Go On” that truly represented the glory and emotion of the final full-length Queen album completed during Mercury’s lifetime.
“Even though we were all aware of Freddie’s impending tragedy, we had some inspired and joyful times in the studio making the Innuendo album,” May recalls. “We didn’t speak much about Freddie’s illness – he just wanted to get on with ‘business as usual’ as far as possible. But already there was only a day or two per week when Freddie was well enough to come in and work with us. We grabbed those precious moments and made the most of them. I’d been working on ‘The Show Must Go On’ as an idea, but I was uncertain whether the title was too obvious. Freddie heard it and loved it and dismissed any thoughts that there was a problem with the chorus or the title. He wanted to work on it.
“We didn’t discuss what the meaning of the song was, but it was of course evident in the background that it was an attempt to give a voice to the feelings that Freddie’s valiant fight against AIDS created in all of us, and even in Freddie,” the guitarist continues. “He was too low in energy to create it himself. But I had one unforgettable special afternoon working together with him – on solidifying the lyrics of the first verse of this embryonic song about a clown whose make-up hid his pain – before he slid out to attend another treatment. That gave me enough lyrical material to later expand into the eventual two verses. I finished mapping out the song, sang the whole thing as a demo – including the added ‘wings of butterflies’ section, which somehow appeared in my head very late one night – and I played it to him when he was next in the studio. The melody called for some very demanding top notes, and I’d only been able to ‘demo’ them in falsetto. I said to Freddie, ‘I don’t want you to strain yourself – this stuff isn’t going to be easy in full voice, even for you!’ He said, ‘Don’t worry – I’ll fucking nail it, darling!’ He then downed a couple of his favorite shots of vodka, propped himself up against the mixing desk, and… delivered one of the most extraordinary performances of his life. In the final mix of [the song], when you get to ‘on with the show,’ you are listening to a man who conquered everything to deliver his finest work.”
Now, just a few months shy of Innuendo’s 30th anniversary and at a time when the world is gripped by the horrors of COVID-19, “The Show Must Go On”’s spirit of survival thrives in the present tense thanks to its appearance on Live Around The World by Queen + Adam Lambert. Out October 2, Live Around the World presents concert highlights captured the world over and personally selected by Lambert and still-active Queen members May and Taylor. (Deacon retired from band activities nearly 25 years ago.) The tracks are drawn from over 200 shows performed by this configuration since 2014. The live recording of “The Show Must Go On” featured on the album comes from the second of the band’s two shows at London’s 02 Arena on July 4, 2018.
Above all, Live Around The World proves there is still plenty of vitality left in Queen despite the tremendous loss of Mercury. The first signs of continued life post-Freddie appeared via May and Taylor’s mid-to-late 2000s collaboration with Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers, which resulted in the 1999 album The Cosmos Rocks under the moniker “Queen + Paul Rodgers.” Although The Cosmos Rocks was a solid (if somewhat pedestrian) Rock release, Rodgers' gritty Blues voice removed all of the operatic magic that defined Queen’s classic work. The course correction of Lambert’s 2011 arrival in the vocal spot continues to be well-received treat for both Queen diehards and newer fans introduced to the group through the massively successful 2018 biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody. While there will never be anyone who could adequately follow Mercury’s legacy on the stage, Lambert’s undeniable gifts as a singer and frontman are clear on this version of “The Show Must Go On” and the other 19 tracks that comprise Live Around The World.
“‘The Show Must Go On’ is a song with a very deeply resonating message,” Lambert says. “I think we all have moments in life where we feel the odds are against us and the climb is a steep one. I always sense a great cathartic release throughout the audience during this song. I think we all recognize that it was a big statement for Freddie at that point in his journey as well; he was fighting for his life.”
As our collective struggles carry on through 2020 (and perhaps beyond), “The Show Must Go On” is still here for us. As Roger Taylor so succinctly puts it, “The song says it all.”
Pre-order Live Around the World here.
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