Was it all worth it?
My favourite song from The Miracle and also a question I have been asking myself since The Miracle: Collector’s Edition landed with a veritable thud on the doorstep a couple of months ago.
The Miracle: Collector’s Edition is the latest Queen box set and comes thirty-three years after the album’s original release. The not inconsiderable sum of £150 buys you one vinyl album, five CDs, one BluRay, one DVD, one hardback book and assorted bits of memorabilia.
I should start by saying that if you want to read something that tells you that Queen are fabulous, this box set is fabulous, everything Queen do is fabulous, you may as well stop reading now. Yes, I think of myself as a fan – they have been my favourite group for more than forty years – but I still try for a bit of objectivity too. For more about that, see my review of Queen + Adam Lambert at Manchester in 2022.
I should also say that The Miracle has never been one of my favourite Queen albums. In fact, based on gut reaction, I once rated it my least favourite – more about that here. So when it comes to reissues and the like, The Miracle was far from the top of my wish list. (As I argue here, Live Killers is seriously overdue the super-duper all-you-can-eat treatment.)
I was, to be blunt, a bit underwhelmed when I first played the album, back in May 1989. Disappointed, even. Perhaps I was just expecting too much.
After the success of Live Aid and the Magic Tour, which elevated Queen to megastar status on a par with the likes of the Stones and Michael Jackson (in Europe at least), band activity suddenly ceased in August 1986 – despite what Brian had said publicly about plans to immediately either record new stuff or continue touring. (I am alluding to the interview that was used to open Channel 4’s broadcast of the Wembley concert in October 1986.)
Fast-forward to 1989. Publicity ahead of the album’s release – talk of a whole year in the studio, of batteries recharged and of old magic rediscovered – more than whetted the appetite, and the lead-off single certainly didn’t disappoint. I Want It All hinted at a back-to-basics approach but still delivered the anthemic sound of 80s Queen at their best. Body Language it wasn’t. And the B-side, Hang On In There, had a refreshing having-fun-in-the-studio first-take vibe to it.
As for the album itself, there was/is much to enjoy but also too much that is mediocre at best. In other words, it’s a typical 80s Queen album. Breakthru and Was It All Worth It? are two of the very best later-Queen songs, but Rain Must Fall and My Baby Does Me are two of the worst. Not awful. Just rather bland and pedestrian – not unlike Life Is Real (1982) and One Year of Love (1986). They should have been B-sides or twelve-inch fillers. Given the wealth of material the band were working on – perhaps, we are told, as many as thirty ideas/tracks – it is astonishing that both songs made the cut.
I like Khashoggi’s Ship and Scandal, but The Invisible Man sounds like a reject from The Cross’s debut album Shove It (in reality a Roger solo album) and was one of their weakest singles. And though Brian regularly cites it as a favourite, the album’s title track – and fifth single – is let down by premium-grade drivel like “That time will come / One day you’ll see / When we can all be friends”. Let’s face it, Queen were never great at writing lyrics about friends.
But my main reservation about the album – and indeed Queen’s 80s output more generally – is the use of synthesised drum and bass parts rather than natural instruments. Compare the timelessness of, say, A Night at the Opera to the dated sound of albums like The Works, A Kind of Magic and this one.
Take the opening track, Party – without doubt Queen’s worst album opener. It’s also the opening track on CD2 – The Miracle Sessions – but, unlike what ended up being released, this early version crackles with energy. At what point in the song’s development, you wonder, did someone suggest replacing Roger’s drumming with a drum machine. Ditto Breakthru – here with “real” bass and drums, to quote the liner notes.
I thought the work-in-progress CD from the 2017 News of the World box set was excellent, but The Miracle Sessions surpasses it. And it’s not just the previously unreleased tracks – intriguing though they are – that make it such a great listen. The alternative takes are in several cases radically different from – and in my opinion sometimes better than – what ended up on the Miracle album, in no small part because the band are playing live in the studio, Brian’s guitar is prominent in the mix, Roger is working up a sweat and, well, they’re rocking like it’s 1973 again.
CD2 includes five new songs plus A New Life Is Born, some of which is familiar as the opening to Breakthru. I like them all, particularly the two Brian tracks, You Know You Belong to Me and Water. The quality of these ‘new’ songs calls into question comments made after the release of the Made in Heaven album that the ‘vaults’ were now empty.
Anyone disappointed by Face It Alone is probably missing the point that they are listening to an unfinished track, an early sketch so to speak, something the band had chosen not to continue working on. Perhaps they couldn’t see a way forward with it at that point; perhaps they just thought it wasn’t good enough. As it happens, I think it’s not too bad at all – and I am glad they didn’t do further work on it now beyond cleaning it up for release. Yes, it is unfinished (most obviously the lyrics), but I like the downbeat and understated mood – not words normally used about Queen’s music and almost certainly not what most of the general public would have been expecting when it was released as a single.
CD2, then, is outstanding – but what else does £150 buy us?
Well, there’s a vinyl copy of the album. It is certainly a much more substantial product (it weighs 180 grams) than the thin, warped records we bought back in the good old days. Its quality reminds me of the Japanese imports that were so collectible in the late 70s and early 80s. (I gave away my vinyl collection more than a decade ago but my Japanese copy of the first Queen album is one of the few records I kept hold of.)
The packaging – including, for the first time, a gatefold sleeve – looks great. The big draw for collectors is the inclusion on side one of Too Much Love Will Kill You, Queen’s version of which first appeared on the post-Freddie Made in Heaven album. We can take the ‘long lost’ tag with a heaped spoonful of salt – Brian is particularly prone to hyperbole of this sort. The album was never ‘lost’ in any sort of literal sense. Too Much Love Will Kill You was pulled from the original release at the last minute because of a dispute about royalties (two outsiders were involved in the writing of it).
CD1 is the 2011 remaster of the album. No surprise there, but it would have been nice to have the additional track on this version of the album as well, if only for those of us who don’t own a record player.
CD3, meanwhile, is called Alternative Miracle, a rather hit and miss collection of non-album B-sides and extended remixes. The standout tracks are Hang On In There and My Life Has Been Saved – either or indeed both of which could and should have been included on the Miracle album itself. A different version of My Life Has Been Saved, originally the B-side of Scandal, appeared on the Made in Heaven album, but this is a better, more guitar-driven version of the song.
The extended remixes, on the other hand, are a bit of a letdown. Twelve-inch singles, with additional tracks and/or extended remixes, were an 80s thing, working best when they developed a song in a way that sounded natural and seamless – Back Chat, say, or I Want to Break Free (except for the hideous mashup at the end). The remixes of Breakthru and The Invisible Man, on the other hand, just sound like the producer experimenting with various effects after too much Southern Comfort.
Alternative Miracle also includes live versions of the older Queen songs Stone Cold Crazy and My Melancholy Blues. They were additional tracks on the fifth single, The Miracle, included to promote the (fairly dire) Rare Live video that was released at roughly the same time. It’s why Guitar World could get away with saying in the introduction to their interview feature with Brian that the box set includes “live cuts”.
There were no concerts, of course, for reasons we all now know, and so there are no live tracks to supplement the studio material.
CD4 – Miracu-mentals – is made up of instrumentals and backing tracks. That’s definitely one for fans only, I would suggest, as is CD5, which features two radio interviews, including the Queen for an Hour BBC interview with Mike Read that is already available elsewhere. Meanwhile, the DVD and BluRay discs are extremely disappointing. As with CD5, much (if not all) of the content is available elsewhere, and there just isn’t enough of it – videos for five singles and a few mini-documentaries. People on my favourite Queen message board who know a lot more than I do about the technical side of things are disappointed that the videos have not been fully upgraded (except apparently for I Want It All).
There’s also a hardback book. It’s all nice and glossy, as you would expect, but (again) there just isn’t enough content to fill 70-odd pages. The opening chapter tells us everything we need to know about the album and then we get chapters on each of the five videos. There are quotes aplenty, but you quickly realise that many of them come from either the DVD/BluRay content or the radio interviews.
The book that came with the News of the World box set is packed with great shots from their 1977–78 US and European tours. The Miracle book also has lots of photos – some of them, gosh, previously unseen – but they are mainly from the video shoots. Why not just watch the videos?!
The Scandal video on the DVD/BluRay exemplifies the problem. It’s obvious from the audio commentary (previously available on the Greatest Video Hits 2 DVD) that Scandal isn’t one of Roger’s favourites – either the song or the video. In fact, he is scathing about both. That’s fine when it’s one of seventeen songs, but less so when there are only five to watch – ie 20% of the total. Turn to the relevant chapter of the book and we find his less than gushing remarks reproduced there as well.
And so, is it in fact all worth it?
The answer perhaps depends on what you expect from a ‘collector’s edition’. To be fair, The Miracle: Collector’s Edition does what it suggests on the tin (well, box cover): it brings together in one place most if not all Miracle-related music and promotional products (including some postcards and posters and other bits and bobs that I haven’t mentioned) that a collector would presumably want to collect. And as a massive, massive bonus it also contains some real gems – the work-in-progress stuff and the ‘new’ tracks.
But if the words ‘box set’ make you think primarily of previously unreleased material, The Miracle: Collector’s Edition is likely to leave you feeling underwhelmed, and you are probably better off (in more ways than one) settling for the ‘deluxe edition’ – ie CDs 1 and 2 – for roughly £20. Either that or stream it – Amazon Music has CDs 1–3 available but not the equivalent from the News of the World box set.
There is talk on the aforementioned Queen message board about doing something similar for the Innuendo album. If so, exactly the same problem will surely arise – the lack of previously unreleased material. If they are thinking of another box set – and judging by the sales figures for this kind of product that’s a big if – the case for making the next one Live Killers seems to me unanswerable.
Starting here, every Queen song ranked – plus an explanation of the rationale and ground rules I adopted
Reflections on Queen’s very first live album, 40-ish years after its release
Growing up as a Queen fan: teenage tales told through 10 Queen-related objects