Born-again to rock 'n' roll

Old rockers never die - Freddie Mercury and John Lennon both have new Christmas singles. An occasion for celebration or mourning? By Jim White
When the odds for this year's Christmas number one were issued by Ladbroke's earlier in the week, it was reckoned by one newspaper columnist to be the most nauseating list ever produced. And this despite the fact that Cliff was nowhere near the top. It wasn't that Mr Blobby was in there at 14-1, or that Robson and Jerome (the gut-wrenching squaddies from television's Soldier, Soldier) were 3-1 joint favourites that had him reaching for the sick bag. What inspired adjectives like "stomach-churning", "ghoulish" and "barrel-scraping" was the presence in the list of Queen and the Beatles. The problem was that both bands are releasing new material featuring performances from one of their number who is dead, and has been miraculously revived by the magic of technology.

This uncomfortable feeling at tinkering with mortality for profitable ends is not a new one. When Natalie Cole, thanks to a bit of cunning knob- twiddling, duetted with Nat King Cole to mark the 25th anniversary of his death in 1990, the criticism was widespread. Never mind that the intention was to record a genuine tribute to her father, Ms Cole's effort was taken by many as a cynical attempt to revive her flagging career by attaching it to one of infinitely greater substance. We may have the technology, runs the argument, but we have yet to learn how to apply it tastefully.

When levelled at the two singles which will be sold in coffin-loads this Christmas, however, this argument simply won't stand up. For a start, if you wanted to nominate two sets of blokes less in need of a quick buck than Messrs McCartney, Harrison and Starr, and May, Taylor and Deacon, you would have to look hard and long. Last year, for instance, the Beatles came third in Forbes magazine's international list of entertainment money- makers; and it seems unlikely that the surviving threesome's motive in getting together with John again was a determination to leapfrog over Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg in the chart for 1996.

Nor is either band in need of a reputation boost. Queen, thanks to that episode in Wayne's World where the lads sing "Bohemian Rhapsody" while cruising in their Honda Civic, if nothing else, have never been more visible. And as for Paul, Ringo and George, can anyone seriously suggest they require a Christmas number one to remind us who they are? Nevertheless, there is no disputing that both have released a record featuring their deceased colleagues with, presumably, the intention of seeing it at the top this Yuletide.

The question is, why? The two songs do not share the same provenance. Queen's was recorded while Freddie Mercury was still around. He was determined to spend his last few months working and went into the studio to do his bit for "Made in Heaven" in the same manner he had with every other Queen recording. Sometimes he was so ill he could barely stand, but he pressed on preparing his last hurrah. Why? Because all creative output is an attempt to cheat mortality. In knowing he had less than six months to go from the moment he entered the studio, Mercury was merely working on a more condensed timetable than most artists. His knowledge of the imminence of his death has charged several of the tracks with an emotional resonance which will stick in the memory of Queen fans, if not in the craw of their detractors. "I'm a man of the world and they say that I'm strong/ But my heart is heavy and my hope is gone," you can hear him singing on "Mother Love". To which, whatever side you are on, the only reaction is: "Blimey."

Far from being anxious to cash in on the death of their singer, the other members of Queen felt uneasy about putting the finishing touches to the record after Mercury's demise. Hence the four-year gap before they could bring themselves to do anything with it. Now they have, the line they are pushing is: it was what he wanted.

This is a claim that cannot so easily be made by the remaining Beatles. "Free As a Bird", the unfinished John Lennon number the surviving threesome have workshopped up into a releasable entity, was not intended as a Beatles number. Indeed, the mood Lennon was in when he wrote it suggests the last thing he wanted was to have Paul McCartney's mitts all over it. But time heals, Yoko has given her consent, and McCartney gave her in return rights of approval for the final product. In his interview with Q magazine, the only one he has given about the record, Macca pronounces himself convinced that Lennon would have wanted it this way: and since no one is more vigilant in protecting the Fab legacy than McCartney you have to accept he probably means it.

"The point is, we were working with John," he tells Q. "That was the fantastic thing." Macca went through a cunning subterfuge to convince himself that they were, telling the others to behave as if Lennon had popped the tape into the studio, disappeared off on holiday and told them to get on with it. Harrison, incidentally, didn't need much convincing: he reckoned it was only a matter of time before he and John would meet up for a spiritual jam session in some Krishna afterlife. But they weren't working with Lennon: they were working with a cassette tape he recorded 15 years ago. McCartney has, of course, worked like this before, recording duets with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson without ever being in the same continent. They were, by no coincidence at all, two of the lowest points of his recording career.

And that is where the real problem with the new Beatles record lies. After 25 years turning down cheques substantial enough to keep the NHS afloat for a decade to tempt them to reform, they decided they would only do so if all four of them participated (which somewhat limits concert appearances). The aim in doing it, perhaps, was to remind all the young pretenders - Supergrass, Paul Weller, Blur - who the daddies really are round here. But what we will get is not a real Beatles record. Because, unlike Queen, the creative process that made Beatles records - the studio- based compromises and editorial judgments - are only being three-quarters made. Not a crime sufficient to make you nauseous, maybe. But enough to make you wonder if it was worth it.