How Personal Loss Inspired Queen’s ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’
The '80s were mostly good to Queen. Multiple hit songs – "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and "Another One Bites the Dust" in 1980, "Under Pressure" in 1981, "Radio Ga Ga" and "I Want to Break Free" in 1984 — plus a riveting performance at Live Aid in 1985 propelled the band to the top of charts.
In early 1986, the band rode that high back into the studio to record their first album since their history-making Live Aid performance, A Kind of Magic. The LP would serve as the unofficial soundtrack to Highlander, a British fantasy-adventure movie about immortal warriors.
All seemed well ... until it didn't.
By the latter half of the decade, it became apparent the high Queen had been riding would not last forever. Singer Freddie Mercury was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1987, though he didn't disclose the news to the media or fans at first. Guitarist Brian May was wrestling with a fraying marriage and the impending loss of his father.
Around this time the band saw unedited footage from Highlander, which flipped a switch in May's brain. "That was our first experience in any way with Highlander — I hadn't read the script; I don't think any of us had," May recalled in 2003 (as noted in the 2012 book, Queen: The Complete Works). "And it was very moving. ... [It] kind of opened up a floodgate in me – I was dealing with a lot of tragedies in my life: the death of my father, the death of my marriage and so forth. I could immediately hear this 'Who Wants to Live Forever' in my head, and it was almost complete in the car going home – I remember singing it to my manager as he drove me home, and he was pretty surprised. He said 'Where did that come from?' and I said 'I don't even know.'"
May's divorce and his father's death happened two years later, in 1988, but the song he hummed to his manager that evening found its place in one of the most poignant scenes in Highlander, as the main character watches his wife grow old and die while he, an immortal, remains forever young. Backed by the London-based National Philharmonic Orchestra, with an arrangement written by May and the cocomposer of the film's score, Michael Kamen, the song fit the melodramatic moment. In the film version, Mercury sings all lead vocals; the album version of the song, however, features May singing several lead lines, including the first verse of the song — two individuals grappling with mortality in separate ways.
Listen to Queen's 'Who Wants to Live Forever'
The music video for "Who Wants to Live Forever" featured Queen performing the song in the presence of the orchestra, surrounded by candles and offering another scene of sentimentality. Still, a few moments break the seriousness, like how drummer Roger Taylor appears in the video as the only band member not dressed for the occasion.
"I got quite drunk doing this [music video], I couldn't remember my bits," Taylor remembered. "I must've been drunk because I'm dressed appallingly in some denim outfit. I must have fallen into a vat of bleach! This was a long, boring shoot, and it's all terribly serious. It looks a bit religious, so I can't say I'm very keen on that."
Watch Queen's 'Who Wants to Live Forever' Video
Nevertheless, Taylor agreed the track fit well into Highlander's narrative. "I really love the song in the context of the Highlander film, with all the moving shots of the highlander and his wife," he said, "I thought that was very beautiful."