Off the Charts

Queen, After the ’70s

When they officially formed as Queen in 1973, the four skilled musicians in the band – Freddie Mercury (vocals, piano), Brian May (guitar), John Deacon (bass), and Roger Taylor (drums) – agreed on a policy that defied the prog-rock movement that many lumped them in with. “No synths,” it said on their album covers. And they stuck with that slogan…until they didn’t.

One of the many unusual things about Queen was their willingness to change with the times. That included both musical and performance style. The same band that shifted from defending its classic rock instrumentation to spotlighting synthesizers also changed out of its flowing white satin costumes and into tight jeans and (in Mercury’s case) a bushy mustache.

The year 1980 saw the release of two Queen milestones: the soundtrack to the movie Flash Gordon and the studio album The Game. Brian May, a science fiction fan, spearheaded the Flash Gordon project, which consists largely of May playing electronic keyboards. No synths became all synths, and there was no going back.

As for The Game, it was their biggest seller in the U.S. Its two chart-busters, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust,” gloried in Mercury’s new macho image and were driven by a new focus on Deacon’s funky basslines. But those songs were retro right out of the box: “Crazy” is a nod to the 1950s, and “Dust” has a disco beat at a time when that style was declared dead. Little did Queen know, these would be their last two big American hits.

The Game is a solid album overall, but one of its most interesting songs was not released as a single. In fact, Queen never performed it live. Brian May wrote “Sail Away Sweet Sister” and subtitled it “To the Sister I Never Had.” It’s a strange but captivating (and maybe a bit creepy) song about a young man watching his sister come into womanhood. The fact that May sings lead vocals on this track, something he rarely did even for his own songs, is the deciding factor. His unsure, unpolished voice is the right sound for delivering the text’s awkward sexual undertones. Mercury sings the bridge.

 

Despite the success of The Game, legions of Queen fans turned against the band because of the Hot Space album (1982). “People are saying we’ve lost our rock and roll feel,” Mercury famously complained from the stage during a 1982 show. “It’s just a bloody record.” To be fair, there’s some painfully poor stuff on here (“Dancer,” “Back Chat,” “Action This Day”), but it’s also the album that brought us the wonderful “Under Pressure” duet with David Bowie!

You have to dig around a bit to find a Hot Space cut worth special mention, but “Life Is Real (Song for Lennon)” fits the bill. Mercury’s memorial to the assassinated former Beatle is among the first such tributes to be released by a major artist (Paul McCartney’s “Here Today” and Elton John’s “Empty Garden” also came out in 1982). The short lyric lines and simple melody and rhythm evoke Lennon’s no-nonsense songwriting style.

 

Hot Space was made during a period when the bandmembers were ready to claw each other’s eyes out. That’s hardly rare among rock bands, but they handled it in a rare manner: Instead of splitting up, they took a little break. By 1984 they were ready to make the album A Kind of Magic, tour it to great success (they didn’t bother with the U.S.), and return to London in 1985 to blow the lid off the Live Aid charity music marathon.

Queen was back in full stride. They double-dipped in 1985 with the album A Kind of Magic, which included a number of songs also destined be used in the soundtrack for the 1986 movie The Highlander. Among the songs intended for the film was John Deacon’s “One Year of Love,” much less famous than his single “Friends Will Be Friends” from the same album. I’ve always thought a late-career Elvis would have enjoyed covering this sweepingly romantic waltz:

 

After another hiatus, The Miracle came out in 1989. It’s a very weak album, derivative of the worst of lateʼ80s pop styles. One wonders why Queen bothered. The only decent song is “I Want It All,” which hardly counts as under the radar, considering it’s been used in Coca Cola Co. ads as recently as 2016. So, we’ll move on to better things.

The final studio album that Queen completed while Mercury was still alive was 1991’s fascinating Innuendo. The richly symphonic title track is a nod to the “Bohemian Rhapsody” tradition, a long, complex, multisectioned number that’s definitely worth a listen. But the best thing about the Innuendo album is its little gems (literally there’s even one called “Bijou”).

While there are plenty of examples of Freddie powering through loud numbers like “Headlong” and “The Hitman” despite his frail health – he died of AIDS the following year – it’s the quiet songs that merit attention. My favorite is May’s “Don’t Try So Hard,” featuring philosophical lyrics, a delicate Mercury falsetto that he hadn’t used in over a decade, and a heart-wrenching guitar solo by May. It’s also a succinct example of the balance the band had finally found between classic rock instruments and synths. Such a tragedy that time ran out for them before they could explore that balance further!

 

After Mercury’s passing, May, Deacon, and Taylor were determined to release one last studio album with all four of them. Made in Heaven, released in 1995, uses Mercury’s voice mainly from two sources: songs that had been recorded but not used for other albums and new songs that May helped Mercury record from his sickbed in his final days. There’s also the title song, in which the vocal track Mercury used on his solo album Mr. Bad Guy (1985) finally gets a proper Queen arrangement.

The song “Let Me Live” was a discard from The Works album in 1984. Queen kept Mercury’s vocal track, added vocals by May and Deacon, and edited out a potential lawsuit-magnet in the arrangement that too closely resembled Erma Franklin’s “A Piece of My Heart.” The eerie result is Mercury singing a plea to “let me live” – in strong, healthy voice – from beyond the grave.

Here’s the original arrangement, before it was altered for the lawyers, that was accidentally released in a promo version of the album:

 

Post-Mercury Queen continues to adapt to the changing times. In 2018, they’re still filling stadiums worldwide in shows featuring original members May and Taylor, a variety of session musicians providing bass and piano (and synths!), and Adam Lambert on lead vocals. Talk about big shoes to fill!