1980. Still riding an ever-growing wave of success that would crest this very year, Queen ponders their next move. Armed with new hair cuts and a glimmer of disco boogie in their eyes, they stride confidently into the studio and prepare to kick another decade’s rock ‘n’ roll ass…
THE GAME (1980)
This is the final album of the band’s classical period, arriving on the heels of the first signs of trouble in the wake of their global conquest (they were dissatisfied with the mixing of 1979′s Live Killers), the first time since they started that they took more than a year between album releases (not counting Live Killers; a prolific, some might say Beatles-esque pace for such incredible, intense studio work throughout the ’70s whose interruption cleanly marks this as a transitional moment in their career as well as a conveniently timed introduction to the 1980s), the welcoming of synthesizers into the mix after nearly a decade of proudly declaring “NO SYNTHS” in the liner notes of every record, and with pivotal chart-topping hit “Another One Bites the Dust”, the introduction of the club-baiting boogie they would more blatantly court on the next official album after this, 1982′s Hot Space. The Game is also a passing of the producer torch: Roy Thomas Baker worked with Queen off and on (but mostly on) from the very beginning up until Jazz, and then Reinhold Mack took over for the live album and continued aboard throughout the ’80s (in an easy-to-remember division of eras, David Richard then assumed the position for their final stretch in the ’90s). Yet the biggest Game-changer, so to speak (sorry), is the band’s tempering of its own madcap tangents. Though there’s still a flip-book variety of song types on display and their hearts are still visibly invested in bringing the material to life, the whole affair feels smaller in scale, and that was partly intentional. While recording, they agreed not to run off in too many directions this time around. Whether that’s better or worse depends on how you like your Queen, but over-the-top and as far-reaching as possible was where they pitched themselves for their career home-run in 1975, so the relatively conservative re-birth here can’t help seem slightly disappointing. It worked better on News of the World because it was an honest-to-goodness back-to-basics move, and there was foreshadowing of this reduction in the more straight-forward mid-section of Jazz but it was redeemed by some of the finest, craziest cuts they ever devised (“Fat Bottomed Girls”, “Don’t Stop Me Now”, “Mustapha”, “Bicycle Race”). Here their settling into a stable veteran act finally takes shape. Fewer of the songs scream sky’s-the-limit creativity Queen; more come across as regular pop songs goosed up with Queen’s patented theatrics, which in theory sounds like a real party (imagine if they had ever actually recorded any covers), but in execution lacks the anarchist soul of their last four albums. You might compare it to Let it Be (not nearly as well-written, but similarly pared down after a dizzying multi-album trip down the rabbit hole).
If this all sounds like the album is no good, let’s clear the confusion: it’s very good. Even though there’s a lot of next-era significance sewn into its production, it’s really the last album that sounds anything like they did during their heyday a couple years earlier. As a reigned-in tail end effort, it feels like an after-party down-shift. Let’s close out the set with some pleasant New Wave and light funk, folks. Thanks for riding with us all the way to the end of the ’70s, see you on the other side…songs like “Sail Away Sweet Sister” and “Dragon Attack” have choruses and guitar licks that sound like they’re from the early ’70s classic rock era, and “Play the Game” somewhat recalls the rhythms of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the sighing vocals on “Some Day One Day” (not to mention “Dragon Attack”‘s titular callback to the band’s fantasy pursuits of yore, probably coincidental though it is), but everything else aims forward, introducing styles and motifs that in hindsight we all readily identify as ’80s music. “Need Your Loving Tonight” could have been the theme to a “Porky’s” sequel. The marriage of blast-off tempo, “let’s rock ‘n’ roll on a Saturday night!” sentiment, and bright synth lines turn Roger Taylor’s “Rock it (Prime Jive)” into the uncredited father of the coming era’s fun-loving dance-rock that would inform later hit singles by Berlin, Scandal, Billy Ocean, Tommy Tutone, and such. It sounds remarkably similar to Taylor’s other composition for the album, “Coming Soon”, with Freddie performing his vocal calisthenics up, down, and around a perky, insistent beat; this is a good song too, but it’s simplistic by comparison; the tempo remains holstered the whole way, never changing or expanding, like it’s on the verge of bursting into a chorus for three whole minutes, but then instead just ends. If “Rock it” had been released on the radio and stormed the charts, “Coming Soon” could be mistaken for a kind of lazy attempt at cloning its success for a would-be follow-up hit from a subsequent album.
Between all these straight-forward pop/rock numbers we get at least a couple novelties, first and foremost the immortal “Another Ones Bites the Dust”. Performed with the erotic abandon of later Michael Jackson (who in fact, adding further credibility to his genius, persuaded the gang to make the track a single, which in turn led to it becoming their best selling song of all time) and mixed less like other boisterous pop funk at the time like George Clinton or Rick James, rather more along the lines of the menacing underbite and capricious structuring that Prince was simultaneously becoming known for, “Bites the Dust” is probably the reason most non-hardcore Queen fans have bought “The Game” over the years. Its badassery is undeniable. Nobody can refuse to dance to this song. Unlike their other omnipresent classics (“You’re My Best Friend”, “Killer Queen”, “We Will Rock You”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”), this song is embraced by absolutely everybody. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t like it, and that includes people who have admitted they can’t stand Queen. Though the song doesn’t account for their epic theatrical side, it does impeccably distill their tongue-in-cheek attitude, love of fusing rock music with any given type of outside genre, and ability – via idiosyncratic writing and Freddie’s extraordinary showman panache – to throw a genuine world-spanning touchdown of a great song every once in a while. The Game is something of a high point for John Deacon, who wrote both this and the album’s second-best track, “Need Your Loving Tonight”, and whose bass work is more prominently featured in song after song (often in lieu of their usual guitar leads) than ever before.
Another wacky, non-traditional exercise on here is “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, Freddie’s ode to Elvis. After “Bites the Dust”, it’s by far the most distinctive song in this bunch. You’re more likely to remember its melody off the top of your head than any of the other 8 tracks and their like-minded templates. Hearing it now, it doesn’t sound all that much like Elvis apart from Freddie’s vamping and the light-hearted rockabilly mood set by the high-pitched guitar and handclaps. Growing up, I was sure this was an actual Elvis Presley song; I was beside myself as an older teen to learn it was pure Queen, not even a cover they cribbed from the King (to re-iterate a unique fact of the band: they never recorded a single cover). Had Elvis survived a few extra years on into the 1980s, there’s no doubt he would have been releasing songs exactly like this one. The next closest thing to a left-field ditty would be “Don’t Try Suicide”, which spends most of its four minutes in virtual a-cappella white-soul mode. It’s another fun track (sample lyric: “don’t try suicide/just gonna hate it”) but not quite as successful as their usual quirky anti-rock jaunts.
The album closes logically with the band’s only ballad (well, power ballad) this time around, “Save Me”, a song of broken love written by Brian May about a friend’s divorce. Lyrically it’s a bittersweet break-up anthem, another “Love Hurts”, while musically it runs mid-tempo with wistful remembrance more than pure sorrow. Like most of the album, it’s a solid B+ song, effective at conveying its message, excellent singing and playing, a strong mix of multi-instrumental layering and backing choruses, a nicely understated case for their newfound attraction to synthesizers, and easy to listen to over and over again, but the songwriting itself is just a touch too staid for it to earn full marks. Still, with Flash Gordon, Hot Space, A Kind of Magic, and the even less memorable albums after that all still to come (all due respect to my colleagues who proudly defend The Miracle and Innuendo), The Game plays as a fond farewell to the sturdy old-school Queen formula. Now let’s all get on the dance floor!
Best Song: definitely “Another One Bites the Dust”.
Worst Song: I’d say all 10 tracks are at least pretty good, so it’s not easy to select a loser, but ultimately “Don’t Try Suicide” is the most disposable.
FLASH GORDON (1980)
Just a few short months after the release of The Game came their full-length soundtrack to the cult classic Flash Gordon and its attending single, “Flash’s Theme”. Though 1980 marks a real fork in the road for the foursome, it’s nonetheless the closest they sailed to the sun in terms of world dominating fame. The Game was their only #1 album in the states and Flash was their 2nd major recording within the same span of time, not selling quite as much but still making some waves (for one thing, its music has outlived its content as a film). Queen’s initial reluctance to take on the project at film producer Dino de Laurentiis’ behest became gung-ho enthusiasm when they were guaranteed total creative freedom (Brian May took a special interest in writing for the film, contributing more than any of his teammates – eight tracks in all), and the project makes absolute sense within the annals of their recorded work. It’s an assignment that practically requires the band’s trademark smashing together of prog influences and maniacal pomp and circumstance. More fittingly still is the subject matter: for this, their first foray into soundtracking (their second would come six years later with the similarly ludicrous – hence wisely chosen – Highlander), they are decorating a science fiction adventure based on an old comic strip, specifically a movie that unapologetically basks in winking silliness (sound familiar?). Rock bands acting as film composers was mostly unheard-of at the time, unless you count The Beatles on A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, Simon & Garfunkel on The Graduate, Cat Stevens on Harold & Maude, and The Bee Gees on Saturday Night Fever, but in all those cases, the music was originally created for its own sake, not to complement or score a film already in progress. Isaac Hayes may have been one of the first on 1974′s Shaft, which has a soundtrack roughly twice as long as Flash Gordon‘s. By and large, however, there was no precedent or history of popular musicians themating an entire film to use as reference. What Queen did during their compressed six-week recording session was promote the synthesizers they began toying with on The Game to music tool #1; most of the 18 tracks rely on the then-futuristic pulse of these synths to foreground the outer space context. As a result, though the whole thing is rooted in high camp, the individual compositions adhere to the general rule of film scores across history to not overwhelm their subjects but rather underline and accentuate their ambitions. Flash Gordon was already going to be a proudly un-pretentious journey into B-movie space operatics – a comic strip come to life, not expected to take on any more gravitas than the superficial entertainment offered by its source. Queen does right by these expectations, as much of their career has been based on similar guidelines.
Most famously there’s May’s “Flash’s Theme”: part rock, part opera, part Queen (sudden tempo shifts, Freddie’s voice ascending to the higher octaves), part sound byte hilarity (the way Ming’s assistant disdainfully pronounces “earth” is a hoot). On the other side of the album, at the very end is “The Hero”, also written by May (with assistance from composer Howard Blake), the only other track with vocals and the most fully formed song to be found here (more so than the “Theme”, which sounds more like an introduction to the movie than a standalone tune). “The Hero” begins with the general motifs of the soundtrack whipped into a Queen-flavored paean to heroism, includes a synth interlude, and concludes with the “Theme” itself taken to climax.
If you’re a student of film scores and/or the art of opera design and sequencing, this soundtrack might be of particular interest. You can’t definitely say the same for Queen fans, or the average listener with a G.E. in rock and pop music forms. As is common to all soundtracks, whether spear-headed by bands or orchestral composers, the majority of the pieces function as atmosphere, not songs, as well as depend repetitively on a central leitmotif – here, “Flash’s Theme”, an exultant recurrence in the movie but a nuisance to the utility of each individual track if you’re just listening to the soundtrack. For most of us, the best approach to this Flash Gordon album is to extract the Theme, “The Hero”, and maybe the couple of deep cuts whose sonic cocktails entice you, then discard the rest, enjoying the full 18-track voyage only during actual viewings of the film where the sometimes minimal, moderately interesting yet inessential tracks can make proper sense.
Best Song: “The Hero”
Worst Song: take your pick. No reason to antagonize any of these tracks, but many don’t offer much to recommend.
HOT SPACE (1982)
The black sheep of the Queen canon, and here are some reasons why:
- abandoning their heavy rock sound almost entirely (except for a couple songs) in favor of synthesized dance, funk, R&B, disco, pop, and club-ready directions
- the overtly (if unspoken) homosexual mindset, which even Brian May felt was reductive to the band’s usual all-inclusive mission statement. This was apparently borne of Freddie’s increasing time spent at gay clubs during this period, possibly influenced by his manager Paul Prenter, who the band claims pulled Freddie away, Yoko-like
- what many describe as a chintzy production sound, probably due to all the electronic supplements used in the studio (even a drum machine, despite Roger Taylor still very much existing as the resident percussionist), much more so than on their previous album, The Game
- because the band members themselves (save Freddie) have gone on record numerous times stating their dissatisfaction with the project, fans dutifully followed suit and disowned it
Okay, so the first two complaints there aren’t actual criticisms – true, old-school Queen fans and any rock enthusiasts aware of Queen’s power must have felt shocked and betrayed by the replacement of guitar shredding majesty with a bunch of “Another One Bites the Dust” wannabes, but Queen has never been tied down to the hard rock realm. If Led Zeppelin had released Hot Space, I can understand the whiplash, but given how playful, flamboyant, and unpredictable Queen has openly behaved since the mid-’70s, and considering their prior media blitzkrieg involved both a laser-show homage to a big-screen camp extravaganza and one of the decade’s most popular funk tracks (“Bites the Dust”), everything about Hot Space was pretty much inevitable. As for the gay subtext that pervades the lyrics and music of the album’s front half, well, so what? Were they really aiming at a universal demographic in their earlier work as a mission statement, or was it just because tailoring music to the gay community was still extremely taboo back then? Maybe Freddie never wanted to explicitly express that side of himself until this point (though there’s been a definite gay angle to the band at least as far back as Sheer Heart Attack), and in the aftermath of “Another One Bites the Dust”‘s success, he finally felt free to relish his naturally grooving, soul-man tendencies.
You might argue that the production quality pales next to their achievements with A Night at the Opera or A Day at the Races, but the sound itself is actually just as crisp and full-bodied as ever. The misunderstood problem is the shift in compositional priorities that occurred between then and now – ever since The Game, the band had been adopting simpler, more direct arrangements. Compared to other charting musicians at the time, they were still building their music in clever, atypical ways, and it’s not like they became a factory-line verse-chorus-verse-chorus machine, but fine, the days of “The Millionaire Waltz” felt pretty far away at this point. Though whether you enjoy any of their strobe-light bebops or not, there’s actually a hearty variety between them – opener “Staying Power” runs on a wiggly bassline and vibrant horns, “Dancer” features a punchy synth beat and vintage Queen group chorales, “Back Chat” adds an old-school electric guitar solo to its strutting rhythm, synth-driven “Body Language” tries a little something new every few seconds in the tradition of sound buffets like “Bicycle Race” and “Seaside Rendezvous”, and “Cool Cat” (initially with a backing track by David Bowie, whose unhappiness with the results forced the band to delay the album’s release while they removed his part) is smooth R&B delivered entirely in Freddie’s falsetto. These are all well-executed songs, pleasurably funky and just as quilt-like in their use of whole spectrums of instrumental sounds, vocal pitches, and musical genres as anything the band did before or since; if you can divorce yourself from “We Will Rock You”-type Queen and put yourself in the mood for Michael Jackson’s Thriller (which was strongly influenced by this album; what more vindication does Hot Space need than that?), then the worst thing you can say about the dance side of the album is that there’s no definitively catchy, timeless song at its heart.
Oh wait, there totally is, and it’s called “Under Pressure”. At first glance, what’s sometimes anointed as the band’s magnum opus looks like an ill fit for this hodgepodge of a record. Not only was it recorded with special guest David Bowie some time before the album sessions began and tacked on to the end of the tracklist, but unlike the sounds of the dance-floor elsewhere on Hot Space, its many ascending parts and heightened drama give it the feel of earlier Queen anthems. Really, though, John Deacon’s iconic bassline and Freddie’s scat-singing are as funky as it gets; it definitely belongs on here. It’s another classic style hybrid by the band (R&B meets gospel-folk meets rock), and pulls together the very essence of the album, the other half of which has plenty for non-”Thriller” fans (as though those actually exist): with “Put Out the Fire”, Brian May (who else) throws a kickass bone to those jonesing for another soaring rock giant like “Tie Your Mother Down” or “It’s Late”. There’s a ready-made stadium sing-along in “Las Palabras de Amor” (the light amount of Spanish lyrics makes Queen officially 5-times multilingual, after the Arabic in “Mustapha”, the Japanese in “Teo Torriate”, and the French in “Seaside Rendezvous”), a sort-of rock ‘n’ roll Hall & Oates nod in “Action This Day”, a succinct love song dressed in pretty acoustics in “Calling All Girls”, and Freddie’s contribution to the outpouring of John Lennon tributes at the time in “Life is Real (Lennon Song)”. If any of the tracks on Hot Space don’t quite work, it’s this one – sure, it does invoke Lennon’s songwriting mannerisms (I can see this being a cut off Plastic Ono Band, down to its echo-y mix and empty platitudes), and you’ve got Freddie’s impassioned performance as always, but it’s so very forgettable and trite. To be fair, none of the songs written about Lennon after his death (by his former bandmates, Elton John, The Kinks, etc.) were worth much more than “the thought that counts”, so no big loss here.
THE WORKS (1984)
“Let’s give ‘em the works!” exclaimed Roger Taylor as they began work on a new album, and a title was born. For Queen, the rate of album output had slowed to a 2-year gap in the ’80s, but it wasn’t for lack of energy. The first time they didn’t have a release during an entire year was 1981, when they were busy conquering South Africa on a legendary tour. Next was in 1983, and history might indicate it was fall-out from the failure of “Hot Space”, but really it was the band being busier than ever. Everyone but Deacon had embarked on side projects, and then they were commissioned to start on their second soundtrack, to the John Irving adaptation of The Hotel New Hampshire, just as they headed into the studio, so it took a while to get everything sorted out. The strain of juggling two separate musical projects forced them to abandon the soundtrack soon after with only one song completed (“Keep Passing the Open Windows”, itself a mantra of positivity used repeatedly in the movie, but the song itself was rejected). They unknowingly dodged a bullet there, considering what a horrible mess that movie ended up being, but who knows how composing a dozen or so tracks for an eccentric comedy-drama would have turned out in Queen’s hands, or helped re-shape the atonal nonsense of the film itself.
Anyway, what came of all this work in 1983 was, when you step back and consider their discography, yet another compilation of familiar flavors. Hot Space is designated as the dance-funk album but that was a predilection, not a hostile takeover; only half the album bore that description, while the rest took its cues from the Queen formula (anthems, ballads, rockers, insanely awesome Hall of Fame masterpiece). The Game, Jazz, News of the World, A Day at the Races, A Night at the Opera, as diverse as they seem, each follow a kind of pattern, and The Works was no different. It starts off with a plus-sized pop epic (to be continued with “One Vision” on top of A Kind of Magic), has a couple barn-storming rock songs from Brian May, a Freddie Mercury novelty (“Man on the Prowl”, a swingin’ rockabilly jam that should’ve been subtitled “Crazy Little Thing Called Love Pt. 2″), a Freddie Mercury piano weeper (“It’s a Hard Life”), an overly earnest, Michael Jackson-circa-”Heal the World” call for social change (“Is This the World We Created…”), a pop hit that the album would later be identified with (aka “Which one is ‘The Works’? The one with “I Want to Break Free”), an in-betweener that you probably forgot about (“Keep Passing the Open Windows”, akin to fairly good yet less obviously categorizable album filler like “Calling All Girls”, “Coming Soon”, “In Only Seven Days”, “Sleeping on the Sidewalk”, “Drowse”), and because it’s the ’80s, not the ’70s, instead of a token vaudeville number, there’s a token robotic electronica piece (“Machines”). Given the variety of tastes available , it’s easy to forgive what a recognizable checklist this is, especially since this is the last time they’ll go out of their way to diversify album recordings. Starting with A Kind of Magic and on till the end, the tracklistings are much harder to distinguish. That could just be the irreversible sag in songwriting prowess that occurs after this, but it doesn’t help that they do away with so many colors on the Queen palette either.
Of the nine songs that made it onto The Works, none is an outright dud, though for the second consecutive time, it’s the “sad” song that could most easily be dismissed from the pack. As a change of pace, the drawn-out silences on “Is This the World We Created…” and even more muted tone than “It’s a Hard Life” are welcome, but the song has no direction (both in the lyrics and the music, it feels like it was improvised on the spot) nor does it compel you to re-listen. It’s nice that Freddie and Brian collaborated for once on the creation of a song, but it didn’t amount to much.
Fortunately, the eight songs leading up to it are all satisfying entrees in their own ways. Most people don’t seem to care for the Kraftwerk-lite of “Machines”, maybe because it co-opts the kind of music you’d hear from Devo or Bronski Beat, not from royalty of rock’s golden age. It’s got a propulsive electro beat, though, alongside Freddie’s towering pipes, and would probably be embraced by today’s crowds. Either way it’s an admirably timely concept for a song – a clash between robots and humans, in music form. The push and pull of humans trying to take back control doesn’t materialize very clearly (probably should’ve been written more as a duel of a duet), but whatever, it still rocks, ’80s-style. “Keep Passing the Windows” makes an outstanding movie theme; the five-minute length could be shorn in half since the song doesn’t develop beyond its opening bars, but you won’t be in any hurry to shed its pleasant, uplifting contentment (that piano melody is just indelible). Meanwhile, “Man on the Prowl” delightfully whisks you away on notions of carefree ’50s sock hop days, “Tear it Up” makes for damn fine fist-pumping (if you’re a fair-weather fan of Queen just looking for your next “We Will Rock You” fix, this is guaranteed to quench your thirst), “It’s a Hard Life” is respectable if underwhelming (Brian and Roger rate this as one of Freddie’s best moments; perhaps it was inspiring to watch him construct it in the studio, but it’s just not all that memorable as a finished product), and “Radio Ga Ga”, well…the verses are invigorating, and it’s not bad sounding for synth-pop, but I could never get over that embarrassing chorus. “All we hear is, radio ga ga, radio goo goo…” Its invitation to sing along is a death warrant to your self-respect; even if you’re all alone, chanting those inane words out loud is simply not recommended. Tellingly, its working name was “Radio Ca Ca”, and needless to say, it’s a Roger Taylor song, the perpetually weakest writer in the quartet.
Of special note: “I Want to Break Free” was my theme song back in the summer of 2004 when it was used in “carpe diem” form for a Coke commercial in movie theaters. Outlining it with cheesy synth squiggles wasn’t the best way to maximize its life-affirming swell of liberty, but everything else about glows with effervescence. And finally, “Hammer to Fall”, in this writer’s opinion the last truly fantastic Queen song they would ever record. Not to put too fine a point on that – some of the Highlander songs are killer, and I’m particularly fond of a couple inspirational moments off the final album, Made in Heaven, but nothing released after this album captures much imagination (again, all due respect), and certainly nothing ignites the spirit like Brian’s “Hammer to Fall”. It’s the kind of song that makes you feel on top of the world when you listen to it, despite its subject matter (based on Brian’s childhood fear of nuclear annihilation). Its message about making peace with the uncertainties of the future, and implications that we oughta making our voices heard regardless of how it all turns out in the end double as a farewell for the band itself. I’m happy to have four extra albums of Queen songs no matter how sub-standard they were, but we would’ve had to characterize their career as truly legendary if they’d retired with The Works. It’s not the best album, and should’ve ended a track sooner, but “Hammer” sends them off stage with climactic glory.
A KIND OF MAGIC (1986)
The way this one is packaged can be confusing to casual listeners: it’s basically a soundtrack to the Russell Mulcahy action-fantasy yarn Highlander, but a third of the songs don’t apply to nor appear in the movie, the cover art resembles a cartoon version of that year’s Stones album Dirty Work, the album begins with a song that was successfully adopted by another film entirely (front and center on the Iron Eagle soundtrack six months ahead of the album), and even the title refuses to acknowledge the connection. A bit obtuse, and that’s okay, because in contrast to their Flash Gordon space suite, there are no motifs, hardly any interlaced dialogue snippets, and each track unfolds like a Queen song written for its own sake, not to underscore a movie scene. Overlooking the song title “Gimme the Prize” (Kurgan’s Theme), A Kind of Magic could effortlessly stand as a regular Queen album. Plus if you’ve seen Highlander, though the sound of Queen has soaked into its roots over time, a first-time viewing highlights the disparity between the movie’s dour story and the band’s loony melodrama. The half-hearted awareness of its own schlock doesn’t compare to that of Flash Gordon and doesn’t justify the use of such distracting musicians. Regardless, the band happily offered to soundtrack the whole movie after seeing a 20-minute cut, so here we are (born to be kings). As mentioned before, the rainbow coalition of music styles finally ossifies on A Kind of Magic into a permanent duality of hard songs and soft songs. Gone for good are emphasis on electronics (arguably an improvement), the vaudeville, the rockabilly, the Bossa Nova, the toy chest full of instrumental possibilities, the opera flourishes, the randy sexual mischief, and the whimsical charm. Cranking out a very processed sound at this point, with guitars that don’t have the manifestly QUEEN ring to them at all anymore and even a drum machine to lend Roger Taylor a hand (again, only more so), the gang has been transformed into grimy hair metal. To an extent it suits them, what with the grandiose glam posturing and heavy metal savagery (this is probably the most hard rocking they’ve done since Queen II by a small margin); on the other hand there’s something insufferably turgid about bands like Cinderella and White Lion (“When the Children Cry” is a nice ballad, though). Queen do less and less to differentiate themselves from the herd. It’s not that they’re lousy performers all of a sudden – Freddie’s still got range, May’s got chops, Taylor’s ascended to full-on songwriting partner in the group rather than a repressed George Harrison, and if there’s anything we can all agree on about the band’s progress through the ’80s, it’s the greater role Deacon’s bass-work plays with each new record (he’s got terrific stand-out showcases on half the tracks, at least) – it’s that they’ve become boring and unoriginal.
If you’d told me their recording of “Who Wants to Live Forever” was a Skid Row power ballad or “Don’t Lose Your Head” was some justifiably buried Quiet Riot deep cut, I’d buy it. Yeah, that seems about right. Theoretically it was a step in the right direction to attempt a Motown pastiche on “Pain is So Close to Pleasure”; alas, you’ll be out of luck waiting for the Supremes tribute to shuffle in during this joyless slog, performed in Freddie’s patented falsetto but undone by a limp appropriation of Diana Ross. The gentler side of the album drifts through these songs, as well as the tenderness of “Friends Will Be Friends” (Deacon, seriously, stop writing anthems about friendship, we GET IT and you’re never-subtle lyricism has de-evolved to infantile levels – “when you’re in need of love they give you care and attention/when you’re through with life and all hope is lost/hold out your hand cuz friends will be friends”. I’m guessing even the New Kids on the Block debut album that year had more sophisticated lyrics than this), and the one-two punch of “A Kind of Magic” (sounding like the nauseatingly lame side of Hall & Oates, i.e. “Out of Touch”, “I Can’t Go for That”, “Maneater”) and the maudlin keyboard balladry of “One Year of Love” (like a blah take on Aaron Neville’s “Don’t Know Much”, but if nothing else it does use a midnight-inducing saxophone in place of guitars). So much derivative material, and aside from Neville, they’re not even aping GOOD songs. It’s gloomy.
The upside? “Gimme the Prize” and “Princes of the Universe” provide fierce hard rock. Reportedly Freddie and Deacon hated “Prize” but it strikes a much better pose than the fairly pitiful “Don’t Lose Your Head”. “Princes” is the album’s coup de grace, bookending the record with its only other genuine keeper of a track besides the opener (“One Vision”, a reasonably rousing anthem that sought to bottle their elation from the Live Aid show at Wembley Stadium that they totally stole the summer prior). It’s a monolith, a triumph of rock ‘n’ roll hysteria. Probably not too far off from hair metal itself (did Krokus ever do a cover? They should have), but Queen hits the bullseye with this one. Ironically it’s one of the only singles (they managed to make singles out of 7 of the 9 tracks here – that’s Thriller level, son!) that didn’t chart, but it was shrewdly retained for Greatest Hits comps later and has stayed afloat in pop culture thanks to the legacy of Highlander and all its rotten spin-offs (“Princes” was even used as the theme for the ’90s TV series).
THE MIRACLE (1989)
I’ve always thought that later-period Queen is often unknown and overlooked by a lot of fans. The albums were huge hits everywhere but America; there’s some very strong albums after The Works and the monster hit “Radio Ga Ga”. The Miracle is a great-sounding album that sounds the way a Queen album should: big, operatic and packing a sonic crunch.
Released in 1989, and produced by the band and David Richards, for most folks the most recognizable and notable song is the rock radio hit, “I Want it All”. Brian May’s guitar is up front and center throughout along with a big, sing-it-at-the-top-of-your-lungs-chorus. The title track is a very complex song, with multiple time changes, melodic flourishes, multiple hooks?and sweeping guitars. Freddie is in amazing voice throughout the album – note he had AIDS at this time, which the band knew, but it hadn’t been publicly announced yet.
Then there’s “Was it All Worth it”, which closed the vinyl and cassette versions of the album. This grand, majestic song might be the best song most Queen fans probably never heard.? Its simply epic, with a massive opening riff, and a sound that rivals any of their early classics. Composed by Freddie, his lyrics essentially tell his story of being in the band, wondering Living breathing rock’n’roll a godforsaken life/Was it all worth it?/Was it all worth it?/All these years? Add an instrumental bridge complete with a symphony orchestra (!) followed by even bigger, multi-tracked vocals in the chorus, the song is simply amazing. Anyone who says they love Queen has to give this song its due.
Exeunt. See you Friday for the last two albums in the Queen bloodline and a glimpse of George Michael’s tribute to the band’s fallen leader, followed by all of Brian May’s side work and Freddie’s own lone escapades.