Written by Brian May
Recording information by Philipp (PraxisNothaft@t-online.de)
Recorded in late 1985 at The Townhouse and Abbey Road.
Released in May 1986 on the album A Kind Of Magic and in September 1986 as a single.
An absolute masterpiece by Brian May. This is not your average pop ballad, but a haunting opus with an incredible climax and a stunning arrangement. The orchestra-parts for this song are much more complicated, varied and sophisticated than in usual pop-productions. Everything in this song is a proof for Queen's (especially Brian's) high musical quality.
The version analysed here, is the album-version, which is a re-recorded full version that was done after the bits for the film.
They started recording at The Townhouse, where the basic band-instruments were recorded (keyboards, guitars, percussion and maybe some vocals). Then the orchestra was recorded at Abbey Road Studios (they probably used the previously recorded material as a backing-track to get a better synchronisation). Then they probably returned to The Townhouse to mix it and make some overdubs and additions (vocals, percussion or something like that).
Some parts are done by the percussionist of the National Philharmonic Orchestra (some cymbal rolls,the low bass-drum in the solo), but most of it is by Roger.
From 2:00 till 2:50 and from 3:35 till 3:47 (fading) there's a drum-computer line consisting of a flanging hi-hat in 8-note rhythm (the actual 16-note rhythm was achieved by adding a one-repeat stereo-delay that is repeating every hit. The repeats are slightly right).
Roger's main drum-kit-track can be heard from 2:09 till 3:34. The kit consisted of a loud, high-pitched bass-drum with lotsa attack, a snare, a splash cymbal, several crash cymbals and a hi-hat. The drums have lots of reverb and some stereo-delay.
From 3:41 till the end we find another bass-drum, which sounds a bit lower. It has some stereo-delay.
In the second verse there's also another bass-drum, which is quite low. This one also might have been played by the percussionist of the orchestra, but it also could have been Roger.
Around 1:40 there are several rolls with crash cymbals.
The overdubbed fill at 2:34 is quite tricky:
It consists of two snare-tracks and one cymbal. The left snare starts with a pressed roll, then the right one joins and then the cymbal is rolling (a very quick fade-in-out).
At 3:13 there's another very quickly faded cymbal-roll (shortly before the big chorus).
At 4:05 there are rolls with a very low cymbal.
Most of the cymbal-rolls were done with timpani-drum-sticks.
The main keyboard-track was probably done on a Yamaha DX 7.
It has a strange string/organ-sound and was played by Brian.
This was (together with the drum-computer) the first thing that was recorded.
It plays the rhythm-carpet and is the guide for all the other instruments (especially the orchestra).
Somewhere during the solo there's a very high pitched synth-sound, which seems to be a little overdub.
At 1:55 two guitars are playing. One guitar plays chords(this one remains the main rhythm-guitar for the rest of the song),the other one plays slides on the low strings (the low E-string was probably tuned down to D).
The mentioned rhythm-guitar continues into the solo with background-licks, whilst another guitar is playing the solo.
When it goes from the solo into the bridge, the rhythm-guitar starts swelling and fading from channel to channel, combined with quick fade-ins and outs.
In the chorus, this guitar continues playing rhythm and is partially joined by a second rhythm-guitar (could be the guitar with the low D).
The solo-guitar is playing a small fill.
After the last words, the solo-guitar is joined by a second guitar (with the same sound-setting) to form a tiny harmony (in stereo!).
The last guitar-notes in the outro are also left for the solo-guitar.
All guitars were played by Brian, using the Red Special and VoxAc30-amps.
Brian used quite simple sound-settings with regular amp-distortion, a treble-booster, reverb and some delay for the solo-guitar.
The swelling-effects were done with the faders in the control room.
Brian and Freddie are sharing lead-vocals.
Brian sings the first verse (+chorus), the first half of the bridge and the last words. Freddie does the second verse (+chorus), the second half of the bridge and the big chorus.
Brian recorded a harmony-vocal for the first chorus.
Freddie did three harmony-vocals for the second chorus.
The backing-choir in the big chorus consists of a two-part harmony with every note recorded about three times (makes about 6 voices). Probably done by all three singing members (Roger, Brian and Freddie).
The National Philharmonic Orchestra:
This was recorded separately at Abbey Road Studios. The score was arranged by Michael Kamen, who famous for his scores for movies such as Highlander, Lethal Weapon-series and Die Hard as well as for his arranging-work for rock-groups. His last big deal was his collaboration with Metallica (after Queen, my second favourite group).He arranged their material for a symphony-orchestra and the result was their latest album, called S&M.
Back to Queen: Michael Kamen probably also conducted the orchestra (it isn't stated on the sleeve, but he arranged and conducted all the scores for the film where Who Wants To Live Forever was one of the main-themes, so it is quite probable that he also did the conducting-job for the album. As arranger he knows the score best!). The orchestra was recorded by Eric Tomlinson, who seems to be an expert for orchestra-recordings, cause this bloke also recorded the orchestra-parts for the Flash Gordon-soundtrack (another Queen-project). The world is small, isn't it?
The National Philharmonic Orchestra is quite a big outfit.
It consisted of a huge string-section (I'd say at least 40 people), consisting of violins, violas, cellos and double-bass (kontrabass).
Apart from that there were 3-4 french horns, about 3-4 trombones, about 2 trumpets, a harp, some flutes and a percussionist with a big bass-drum and a cymbal und such stuff (see above for details).
I've never been there when a big orchestra is recorded, but I suppose it's done with a big room (with a good acoustic) lots of microphones and a control room.
Mr. Tomlinson did a good job (obviously) and there's some nice stereo-panning, but it's far to much to go into detail. Check it out!
By the way:
Brian wrote the song in his car on the way back home after having seen 20 minutes of the raw film. Please stay with the full album-version and stay clear of all those terrible single, video and GH II-edits. The wonderful outro (especially the dramatic chord-changes that are only included on the album-version) has to be heard in its entirety! It includes superb orchestra-parts.