Only Queen knew how gravely ill their front man really was when he recorded Innuendo‘s epic album closer.
“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,” guitarist Brian May explained years later to the Daily Express.
May handled most of the song’s creation, noting that Mercury was “too low in energy” to do it himself. After developing the track’s basic chord sequence with drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon, May presented the idea to Mercury for his thoughts.
“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 makeup hid his pain, before he slid out to attend another treatment,” May recalled. “That gave me enough lyrical material to later expand into the eventual two verses.”
Lyrics didn’t call direct attention to Mercury’s plight but rather the idea of powering forward, even in the face of incredible adversity. Lines like “I’ll face it with a grin / I’m never giving in / On with the show” and “I’ll top the bill / I’ll overkill / I have to find the will to carry on” reflected Mercury’s determination to keep making music, even as his health faded.
“To me, the most autobiographical line was, ‘My makeup may be flaking, but my smile still stays on,’” Jim Hutton, Mercury’s longtime partner, admitted to The Guardian in 1994, noting that the singer had taken to wearing makeup to hide his degenerating health. “No matter how ill Freddie felt, he never grumbled to anyone or sought sympathy of any kind. It was his battle, no one else’s, and he always wore a brave face against the ever-increasing odds against him.”
Listen to Queen’s ‘The Show Must Go On’
Mercury’s worsening condition made the recording of Innuendo difficult. This was especially true for “The Show Must Go On,” given the track’s dramatic, operatic style.
“The melody called for some very demanding top notes, and I’d only been able to ‘demo’ them in falsetto,” May recalled. “I said to Freddie, ‘I don’t want you strain yourself – this stuff isn’t going to be easy in full voice, even for you!’”
The singer was up to the challenge. “Don’t worry – I’ll fucking nail it, darling!,” Mercury told May, before downing some vodka and recording his vocals.
“[Freddie] propped himself up against the mixing desk and … delivered one of the most extraordinary performances of his life,” May declared. “In the final mix of ‘The Show Must Go On,’ when you get to ‘On with the show’, you are listening to a man who conquered everything to deliver his finest work.”
Released Oct. 14, 1991, “The Show Must Go On” reached No. 16 in the U.K. and No. 40 in the U.S. Mercury died on Nov. 24, a little more than a month after the single’s release. The legendary singer was never able to perform “The Show Must Go On” in concert.