Queen - Styles And Tribulations...or a study of the various genres Queen have dabbled in over their career (Part II)
Click here to read Part I
by Simon Mann
The Pop Years: Hot Space – The Miracle
Fan opinion is divided on Hot Space. Some feel it is Queen’s lowest ebb, others that it represents a band willing to try anything. I fall firmly into the latter category. Although Queen are everything I love about rock, the reason I love their output so much is that there is so much variation over their catalogue. As mentioned earlier, I reached my teenage years in the early eighties when the charts were full of Synth Pop and Disco - exactly where Hot Space falls.
There are more traditional tracks on here (Put Out The Fire, Las Palabras de Amor), but even these are tinged with lighter, poppier production than previous albums. Drum machines and electronic drums make their debut here, with Roger starting to explore new textures in the percussion tracks, expanding the sound of the band. Synths also feature heavily for the first time. The Game was the first album to utilise synths, but their use was fairly subtle. No more. On Hot Space they are proudly pushed up front to give the band a completely new sound.
The album opens with Staying Power, a song which features drum machine and synth bass in conjunction with Brian’s guitar, topped off with a horn section. Dancer sounds, to my ear, to combine electronic drums with a traditional set, a mix that Taylor would use to get exactly the sound he was after. Back Chat is driven by a drum machine’s hi hat sound set to play 16th notes – a sound which lacks the feel of a live band, but which was coming firmly into fashion in the early eighties. Next up is a Freddie composition which seems to lack input from both Roger and John and includes very minimal guitar from Brian in the fade out, Body Language. Perhaps this is the first hint at what Freddie’s solo material would later sound like. Certainly 1985’s Mr Bad Guy is more beat oriented and seemingly less the product of a rock singer.
Life Is Real is included as a tribute to John Lennon, who had died a year or so prior to the recording sessions for the album. Stylistically it is designed to sound like a Lennon composition, with sparse piano, jangly guitar and slapback echo.
Cool Cat and Under Pressure round off the album. Cool Cat is a very laid back, cool Funky/Jazz styled number. Once again it is driven by a drum machine pattern, although this time with Deacy’s bass adding the low end, and includes an electric piano and some clean, funky guitar. The song having been written by Deacon and Mercury and the funky style of the guitar lead me to believe that this is again performed by the bassist. Under Pressure is probably the closest the band get to their “Traditional” sound on this album, with help from the Thin White Duke himself, David Bowie.
The reaction to the album wasn’t as great as the band were used to. With hindsight, they may have been a year or two ahead of their time. Michael Jackson took the styles that Queen had explored and moved them forward with a little collection he called Thriller. I’m told it was quite popular at the time…
As a result, the next album saw the band drawing back a little, some would say playing it far safer. The Works did continue the Pop theme, with tracks like Radio Ga Ga and Machines (Back To Humans) exploring the use of sequencers and I Want To Break Free showing further development of Deacon’s Pop skills, but also returned to their Rock roots, with the Rock ‘n’ Roll flavoured Man On The Prowl and the heavier strains of Tear It Up and Hammer To Fall. Little fell outside these two styles.
1985 saw the band play a short 18 minute set in a quiet suburb of West London. Somehow a few people saw this gig and it came to be recognised as one of their best. The band had been, by all accounts, a little down after the reception of Hot Space and America’s seeming rejection of them during the time of The Works. Live Aid revitalised them and inspired them to return to the studio to work on a song that had its roots as a Taylor composition but became their first full-band writing credit since Sheer Heart Attack’s Stone Cold Crazy. As noted in the opening paragraphs of this article, this was the first Queen song I really listened to properly and fell in love with. A rocker in the classic Queen vein, it also included a middle section which was built on a sequenced beat with a synth bass – the best of both worlds.
This soon led to a full album, although not one in the normal sense of the word.
In 1980, the band had been asked to provide a soundtrack for the film Flash Gordon. A couple of rockers aside, the soundtrack was primarily synth driven and barely a Queen album proper (although it was released as such), with a sound that bore little resemblance to their normal output – more it was atmospheric synth work designed to support the on-screen action.
In 1986 they were asked to do similar, although this time it would lead to a more Rock/Pop driven album – A Kind Of Magic.
Like The Works before it, A Kind Of Magic stuck fairly safely to Pop and Rock, the title track morphing from one to the other during production as it started as a slow, moody rock track before Freddie transformed it by upping the tempo a little and adding the now famous bass line (pinched from his own song on The Works – Keep Passing The Open Windows).
The only track which moves out from beneath the Pop and Rock umbrella is John’s One Year Of Love, a slow, Jazzy love song which, much to Brian’s disgust, featured a saxophone solo in place of the traditional guitar break. Brian got his chance to shine, however, by using his Red Special to emulate the sound of Bagpipes in the solo section of Gimme The Prize.
The Miracle was the next album, the first new studio release since I had become a fan. By now I had collected the whole back catalogue and revelled in the new live album from the Magic tour – Live Magic – and the televised gig from Wembley Stadium. I bought it on the day of release and rushed home to listen to it.
Again, Pop and Rock were in abundance. The opening salvo of Party and Khashoggi’s Ship are fun, throwaway Pop and set the album up perfectly, but it’s The Invisible man which pushes the Pop boundaries. By the late eighties Pop had developed towards more club based dance – House Music, Electro Pop, sampling, etc – and this was Queen’s take on these styles. Drum and bass lines were a mix of real and synthesised, elevating the band’s sound above that of others in the genre they replicated, and the essential Brian May guitar solo was incendiary.
Latin rhythms were revisited in Rain Must Fall, and My Baby Does Me shows the band in minimalistic Soul/Jazz mood, but it’s the band’s home turf of Rock which gives us the album’s strongest song – Was It All Worth It.
I say Rock, but, as usual, the band throw a few curve balls in to this predecessor to The Show Must Go On. By this time, those closest to him knew that Freddie was ill and that any song could be their last. Hindsight again allows us to see the message Queen were sending with this song lyrically, but musically it’s a return to the form of their earlier works where they pushed the stylistic boundaries within a song, turning it into a Rock Symphony, with power in spades.
The Days Of Our Lives: Innuendo – No-One But You.
If the band thought The Miracle could be their swansong, Innuendo saw them working on borrowed time.
Freddie was desperately ill, yet showed incredible strength of character in working as hard as his body would allow, recording some of the best vocals of his career.
Innuendo the album was preceded by the release of Innuendo the song as a single. A Bolero style rhythm opens the song; long low bass notes, soaring guitar work and vocals as good as any Freddie had recorded previously. Suddenly the song breaks down into a section on acoustic guitar (provided by Yes guitarist Steve Howe), before bursting back into a section as heavy as anything by Led Zeppelin at the height of their powers.
By this time, the band were writing as much as they could for Freddie to sing, so it’s hardly surprising that they generally fell back into their comfort zone of rock in its various guises and moods, but there were a couple of tracks which stand out as being different.
The album moves along with I’m Going Slightly Mad, a left field ditty relating to the effect Freddie’s illness was having on him. Ethereal synths, a meandering bass line and slide guitar solo all add to the weirdness the band wanted to create to support the lyrics. All God’s People is an outtake from Freddie’s Barcelona sessions and, as such, has a more operatic quality than the rest of the album – musically, if not vocally.
Finally, Bijou was an attempt to turn a song “Inside out.” An instrumental led by guitar, the solo section is taken by Freddie on vocals. Although not seen as the band’s final track, it is a beautiful way to draw their career to a close - as usual, doing things differently to the norm.
Following the loss of their lead singer, Brian, Roger and John went into the studio to revisit old demos, solo and recently recorded songs. Made In Heaven was a labour of love and stands up as one of their greatest achievements.
It’s A Beautiful Day was built from a short piano and vocal demo recorded during sessions for The Game. It became two versions – one opening and the other closing the album. The former is a Poppy version, the latter a full band rock version, showing the band could take a song in two different directions equally successfully.
Made In Heaven and I Was Born To Love You started life as early eighties pop songs on Freddie’s Mr Bad Guy album. Here they became full blown Queen anthems to rival some of their best. You Don’t Fool Me takes The Invisible Man, tightening and streamlining the genre. A number of remixes were released across the various single formats, giving variations on the Dance genre. Let Me Live is Somebody To Love part II, but this time, for the first time on record, Freddie, Brian and Roger each take a verse and backing singers are brought in to bolster the sound. Whilst not bettering the writing of Somebody To Love, it does take the Gospel sound a step further.
One of Freddie’s last recorded vocals is A Winters Tale. The song has a Blues feel without the obligatory 12 bar chord progression and paints very successfully the view Freddie had from The Duckhouse on Lake Geneva (as seen on the cover of the album), where he spent some of his favourite times.
The band finished up a couple of years later with the single No-One But You, a Ballad about those who leave us early. It would be the last time Brian, Roger & John would all work on new material for the band.
In 1999, Under Pressure was released in a new guise. Roger had revisited what he has often cited as one of his favourite tracks to give it a fresher, more Dance edged groove with the Rah Mix, released to promote Greatest Hits III.
In 2005, Brian and Roger toured with Paul Rodgers as Queen + Paul Rodgers. As a result of a successful tour, the band went into the studio to produce The Cosmos Rocks. The album shows less variation than a traditional Queen album, but the sound wasn’t what Queen fans were used to. Although Brian and Roger brought the Queen sound to the table, Rodgers brought in the flavour of his area of expertise – Blues Rock. As a result, the album generally sits somewhere between the two worlds. As with Hot Space a quarter of a century earlier, the album polarised fans. Some loved the new sound; some were very vocal in their dismissal of the new pairing. For the record, I feel that if you approach it as either a Queen or a Paul Rodgers album you will be disappointed – it is neither, yet it is a mix of both worlds.
As I was writing this, my daughter asked me to define the genre of a story she was writing for school. I, in turn, asked her what genre Queen played. “Rock ‘n’ Roll” she confidently asserted. So I played her snippets from A Night At The Opera, asking her what genre each track was. “Oh,” she said, “That’s not rock ‘n’ roll!” My advice? Try not to limit yourself to a genre.
Beyond the basic premise of being a rock band who moved more towards pop in their later years, Queen covered genres as wide as Jazz, Metal, Dance, Folk, Lullaby, Vaudeville, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Blues, Disco, Funk and Eastern flavoured rock.
Queen were never afraid to try something different and it is this, in my opinion, which sets them apart from most bands of their, or indeed any, era. Possibly the only other mainstream band to push in so many directions were The Beatles, a band who influenced Queen in no small way.
Were they successful in their stylistic endeavours? I suppose that depends on your point of view. They would never challenge the greats of the Jazz world, for example, but they were able to cover the style convincingly for a song or two. They didn’t please all of the people all of the time, but they stayed true to their own convictions and produced material they could be proud of at every step.
We are The Champions? Indeed.
Click here to read Part I
About our contributor:
Simon Mann (WeeMann) is a bassist who has previously played for tribute band Queen On Fire and now plays in a Foo Fighters Tribute – Fat Fighters – as well as an off-the-wall acoustic covers band, Lost The Plot. Follow me on Twitter @WeeMann and check out weemann.co.uk for more info.
Favourite Song – It’s Late
Favourite Album – Queen II