Review Summary: Queen 1 - Punks 0
The breakout success of A Night at the Opera
caught Queen by surprise. They responded a year later with A Day at the Races
. A companion album in all but name (they're both named after Marx brothers films), the quality of its songwriting suffered a small but distinct drop. It was essentially a holding pattern, until the band plotted their next move.
However it wouldn't be long. Punk rock had erupted in the UK at the same time, and Queen were one of many bands dismissed by followers of the genre as out-of-touch, old, and irrelevant (like The Rolling Stones
and Pink Floyd
). Roused by the challenge, our four intrepid heroes decided to fight the enemy on their own turf. The result: News of the World
, a truly classic hard rock album.
The album overall
To combat the punks, the first step Queen took was to self-produce the album, together with seasoned engineer Mike Stone. They abandoned their trademark bombastic massed vocals and mountains of guitar overdubs almost completely, replacing them with an extremely stripped-down, raw and direct sound. This only serves to highlight their skill at crafting timeless rock 'n roll hits. And, thank God, they dispensed with their music hall/ragtime pastiches, electing to focus on hard rock and ballads exclusively.
We Will Rock You
. Who doesn't know this song? It is a brilliantly simple celebration of rock 'n roll: the quintessential rebellious chorus, stomping and clapping, one great Brian May solo. It is the rawest, most brutal, most primal rock anthem ever recorded. Your life isn't complete if you haven't heard the song at least once. This song was what prompted Rolling Stone to accuse the band of being "fascist" in 1978. While this is totally ridiculous, it's hard to deny that the song does have an intoxicatingly dominant edge. At this point, the band perfectly understood that rock 'n roll is about rebellion, control, and power, and gave everybody an amazing slice of it.
We Are the Champions
has in popular culture been permanently fused with We Will Rock You. Indeed, the two songs are like flip-sides: "WWRY" is a battle cry far more powerful than any other song ever created, and "WAtC" is the soundtrack to the final triumph. However, I must confess that I do not like this track as much as its immediate predecessor. While it does exploit the quiet verse-roaringly loud chorus very well and has an irresistible, immediately memorable melody, I prefer "WWRY"'s explosion. To note, this is one of the few songs on the album which employs overdubbed vocal harmonies (like its predecessor and successor).
Sheer Heart Attack
is a jab at punks, dismissing them as nihilistic ("Well you're just 17/And all you wanna do is disappear"), attention-seeking ("Do you know just how I feel?") and lacking in talent ("I feel so ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-ina-inarticulate"). And true to the album's overall vision, the dismissive lyrics are married to a frenzied, punk rock-influenced attack. Roger Taylor contributes not only some fierce drumming but also the aggressive main riff. In a break from tradition, instead of a guitar solo this solo contains some dissonant guitar noises from Brian May. The song ends suddenly, as if someone tripped the power switch (see also: "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"
). The only problem I have with this song is that the drums are recorded like shi
Three songs. One andrenaline rush. This obviously means that the album needs a respite, which it has in the person of All Dead, All Dead
. Opening with some beautiful piano work from Brian, it becomes a heartfelt ballad about... the death of his cat? Well, I've never experienced that so I can't say I'd know what it feels like. The breakdown from around 1:46 features some intricate guitar harmonies, which only saddens me because the guitar is not used in any other part of the song. So in the end, I'd say this one of the best Queen ballads, oddball subject matter aside.
Spread Your Wings
is another power ballad, this time courtesy of John Deacon. The song at first relies on the interplay between Freddie's delicate piano playing and Deacon's acoustic guitars, at least until Brian shows up with his trusty Red Special. The chorus has an appropriately dramatic, inspirational feel (helped in no small part by the main chord progression). Perhaps the most noteworthy thing here is the rather extreme dynamics employed in order to keep the song moving. As a whole, I'd say this is another of Queen's excellent ballads, benefitting from a sympathetic arrangement and a human touch which is generally ignored amongst the band's oeuvre in favour of humourous excess and bombastic showmanship.
Rounding off side one is Fight from the Inside
, a sadly neglected gem. If "Sheer Heart Attack" was merely a jab, "Fight from the Inside" is a declaration of war set to music. Boasting an excellent, catchy, testosterone-drenched blues-rock riff by May anchored by a relentless charging rhythm, it is the perfect vehicle for Taylor's turn in the ring. He is blunt and scornful towards the same punks, deriding them as "money spinner tools", "suckers ready for a fall" and "pictures on a teenage wall" who "think they know what they're doing". These threats are sung in a forceful, combative manner that sounds as if the man's channeling Roger Waters and Johnny Rotten at the same time. A strongly recommended listen.
Opening side two is Get Down, Make Love
, an angry, accusatory insult song directed at a woman who won't satisfy Freddie sexually. Freddie can't muster the same rampaging vitriol Taylor deployed, instead sneering and mocking the victim. Oh, wait, I forgot, this is a joke song. And what an accomplished joke song. It masterfully builds up tension with its spartan verses, exploding into an ultra-catchy hard-rockin' chorus, the kind that tends to inspire involuntary headbanging. And unlike the grating, forced emoting of Hot Space
, Freddie sounds excited and frustrated, and any weird noises he makes ("ssss", "aaaaah") are not annoying in the least. The psychedelic middle part is a brilliant left-field turn. Overall, another strongly recommended listen.
Sleeping on the Sidewalk
is a blues-influenced jam. Per se, it's not a bad song, but its placing almost guarantees that it comes across as filler. Sadly, Brian restricts himself to playing generic 12-bar blues riffs, which saps strength from the song which his top-notch vocals (he believably fakes an American accent) can't save.
Who Needs You
is a Spanish-sounding joint from John Deacon. May does a great job playing spanish guitar (and maracas, apparently), managing to capture the mood of lazying on some South American beach. It's a pleasant, humorous song but nothing more. And again, the sequencing makes it sound like filler.
begins with a midtempo blues-influenced riff and Freddie Mercury's vocals. After a minute, the rest of the band joins in, the song morphing into blues-rock with a world-weary edge. The characteristic Queen massive choruses make a welcome return as well, and Brian plays a stinging solo. At the 4-minute mark, the song accelerates for the last part of the solo, yet another perfect left-field turn. Sadly, the song's structure remains predictable from this point on (verse-chorus), and it becomes tiring to listen to by the end, despite the faster-paced coda.
My Melancholy Blues
is the obligatory final stripped-down ballad, and it has some strong lounge jazz influences. The problem is, the song isn't all that interesting, and it's the victim of atrocious sequencing. This song should be anywhere but the final slot.
Final score: Queen 1 - Punks 0
: "We Will Rock You", "We Are the Champions", "Fight from the Inside", "Get Down, Make Love".