Hot Space or a Cold Enclosure?
by Gavin Noble
Those of you whom have read my earlier fan feature, Live Magic A.K.A My Life Has Been Saved, will know that I was fairly late to the scene in Queen fandom. Sometimes this has been a bad thing. For example, I never got to see them live as a four-piece band. I spent 1989 cursing Freddie for not touring but my stance softened obviously as the truth became known for this decision.
Then after Freddie’s death I missed out on seeing the band as a three-piece unit when my application envelope for the Tribute Concert tickets (hard to believe that it has been 20 years since that event isn’t it?) was returned containing my uncashed cheque. I had only applied via the Fan Club and not over the phone when tickets went on sale because I naively believed the Fan Club would ensure that all active members got at least one ticket. Oh well, never mind I thought and indeed after watching the concert on TV I actually felt relieved at not getting a ticket. I did not enjoy the event at all and though it may sound like sour grapes I have not changed my view in the years that have followed. So, these two main events have meant being late to the ‘Queen scene’ has been somewhat frustrating.
However, on the flip side of the coin it has had its plus points as well. For example, at least I was in time to enjoy the experience of buying my first completely new Queen single, I Want It All, closely followed by my first brand new Queen album, The Miracle. It is hard to put fully into words just how exciting both events were at that stage of my life. The best way I can sum it up is thus: Imagine being able to eat all the Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia and Bohemian Raspberry ice cream you wanted without feeling sick. Then imagine an evening spent in the company of Halle Berry and Eva Mendes. Then put the ice cream and the ladies together and you are now somewhere close to halfway of the excitement I felt!
Even better was the release of Innuendo, which came out the day after my birthday in 1991 and was the best birthday present – albeit a belated one – I could have had from the band – other than them hand delivering it to me themselves that is! Queen remains the only band where I have to have their new album on the day of its release. But I digress…something you may have noticed already?
One thing I did notice after joining Queen fandom, especially when I became a member of the Fan Club, was that whenever anybody did a poll about Queen’s music the same songs and album would occupy the bottom slots. Body Language and Hot Space were universally hated. Absolutely nobody had anything good to say about the album. The music was crap, the cover was awful, the band had sold out etc were all comments I heard time and time again regarding the album, which is 30 years old this year – will we get a 30th anniversary edition a la Night At The Opera I wonder? Indeed, such was the negativity surrounding the album that when I was collecting the back catalogue I actually refused to buy the album until it was the only one missing from my collection.
My memory may be cheating me, but I think it was not until six months after The Miracle came out that I finally bought it on vinyl. I know I was annoyed at the time because I had bought everything else on cassette – to keep it uniform with the Live Magic tape I had appropriated from my brother - but just wanted to finally hear the album and judge the music for myself.
It was with trepidation that I placed it onto my record player and placed the needle into the groove to signal the start of Staying Power. Now, those of you not familiar with record players may not know this, but you had to play albums at a speed of 33 1/3 revolutions per minute in order to enjoy the LP (short for Long Player in case you didn’t know that either!). It was not until Freddie’s vocal sounded like Alvin from the Chipmunks that I realised I had not changed the speed from when I had last played a single – play speed of 45 rpm. You just did not get that hassle from cassettes – and later CD’s – and later still downloads, but it can often be a humorous thing to happen. Some naysayers may even appreciate Hot Space more on vinyl at 45 or even 78 rpms I would venture – after all they would get through it in twice the speed and if dancing along would burn some serious calories!
Anyway, speed adjusted, I ploughed back into the album and as is always the case on the first listen certain tracks immediately jumped out – both good and bad. Though even today I find it hard to say anything good about Body Language and Cool Cat (other than the Body Language video is quite entertaining) I actually think that the rest of the album is not as bad as what many would say. If you dig deep there is actually a hell of a lot to appreciate on the album.
To most people Under Pressure is the only track worth having Hot Space for. What is there not to like about the track really? Classic base line, nice lyrics, good vocals from both Dame David Bowie (there’s a Smash Hits influence that has stuck – and I only bought Smash Hits in case they had the lyrics in there to a Queen single, well that and for the latest pictures of Kylie Minogue whom I was smitten with at that age!) and interesting song structure it fully deserved to be a UK No.1.
I would venture the opinion however – and I tread lightly here – or as lightly as a man of my ponderous bulk can tread – that it is not the best song on the album. That honour goes to Put Out The Fire, which must surely be the best Queen song (alongside Was It All Worth It?) never to have come out as a single. Even today I wonder why this remained unreleased whilst Body Language came out? From the opening guitar chord to the last drumbeat, the song is class personified. True, most of Hot Space has clearly been written to capitalise on the success of Another One Bites The Dust and to a lesser extent Dragon Attack from The Game album, but Put Out The Fire clearly has a minimal nod to the funk/black category, yet is perhaps the most traditional sounding Queen track on the album.
Indeed, most of side two (or from track six onwards for CD buyers only) falls into traditional Queen elements. There is the gentle, yet atmospheric piano on Life Is Real (Song for Lennon) that would not sound out of place on any 70’s Queen album, the sing along catchiness of Calling All Girls (love the video for that track) and Las Palabras De Amor that stands alongside Queen’s best ballads. Add in the awesome rock of Put Out The Fire and Under Pressure and it is only Cool Cat lets the second side down. It is well known that Cat was meant to feature vocals from Dame Bowie but was removed at his request and it would be interesting to one day hear that version in order to judge whether it was the right decision or not?
Side One is perhaps a different story in terms of my understanding of why Hot Space gets such a raw deal. Body Language in particular, as well as Staying Power, is such a departure from the Queen sound, virtually eliminating Brian’s guitar work from the equation, that I can understand why some people were dismayed when it first came out back in 1982. Body Language can perhaps be best summed up as the most experimental Queen song ever – quite an achievement when you think of how unique sounding Bohemian Rhapsody was in its day!
Thankfully Dancer and Back Chat somewhat make up for the lack of guitars on side one with some of the best guitar work Brian May committed to vinyl. The solo in Back Chat, which apparently Brian had to fight tooth and nail to get in there after John Deacon went ‘aggressively black’ completely saves the track from being bland and boring – not words I would often associate with Deacky tracks. Staying Power itself is saved from that judgement by its catchy horn work by Arif Mardin, which always brings smile to my face when I hear its opening salvo.
Summing up Hot Space today I would say it is actually a fun album to listen to. It was also an album that had a large influence over elements of Queen’s studio work after it. Can you honestly say that tracks such as Radio Ga Ga, A Kind of Magic, sections of One Vision, Breakthru, The Invisible Man, My Baby Does Me, Rain Must Fall, Don’t Lose Your Head, Pain Is So Close To Pleasure and Machines (Back to Humans) were not influenced by Hot Space? (Okay I concede some of those are not great examples when I am extolling the virtues of Hot Space!)
Hot Space may not have been a roaring success compared to other albums but on days when I feel a bit down in the dumps I will often find myself reaching for Hot Space to pick up my spirits. There is such a good variety of songs on there, showing once again what talented songwriters the band were that it is hard to be bored by it. It was possibly the first album where the use of synthesisers actually enhanced the band’s music rather than detracting from it.
Ahead of its time is perhaps the best phrase I could use to describe it. I wonder had it been released in 1987 or 1988 if it would be more warmly regarded? Finally, whilst Roger stated on the Days of our Lives documentary that he hated the cover, I think it is one of the most visually interesting covers from the band. You certainly can not ignore it and that always makes a good design for me.
Being late to the Queen party on this occasion was definitely an advantage as it allowed to me to have a slightly more open mind towards Hot Space and its experimental sound as opposed to someone who had been with the band since the start of their career. Hot Space – I love it. To those of you who disagree –I would have blown a big raspberry to you like the Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town but could not spell it!
So as Freddie once said “It’s only a bloody record!” Wise words indeed.
About our contributor:
How I discovered Queen: Click here!
Favourite Album: Innuendo
Favourite Track: The Millionaire Waltz
Favourite Single: Bohemian Rhapsody