July 1977. Members of the rock band Queen and their crew record tracks for their sixth album at Wessex Studios in downtown London. In an adjacent studio, another band, the Sex Pistols, are working on their debut.
One evening, Pistols bassist Sid Vicious wanders into the control room of the wrong studio, looking worse for the wear.
“Sid was a moron, you know,” Queen drummer Roger Taylor remembers in a recent documentary. “He really was an idiot.”
Sid spots Freddie Mercury, who sits at the control room desk, holding a glass with four fingers of vodka.
“Ah, Freddie Mercury,” Sid says, staggering. “Have you succeeded in bringing ballet to the masses then?”
Freddie takes a sip and looks up from the console. “Oh yes, Simon Ferocious,” Freddie says. “Well, we’re doing our best, my dear.”
He stands up, walks over to Vicious, studies his leather jacket, then flicks his finger on one of the safety pins stuck to the collar.
“Tell me,” Mercury says. “Did you arrange all these pins just so?”
Vicious didn’t take kindly to being called Simon Ferocious or having his wardrobe critiqued, and makes a step forward. Mercury pushes him out of the control room. Sid stands there for a second.
“So?” Mercury says. “What are you going to do about it?”
Vicious leaves. The Highbury Hostilities are over. The score: Queen 1, Sex Pistols nil.
The Sex Pistols mascot-bassist’s wisecrack about ballet surely came from an article that appeared on newsstands just weeks before. Rock scribe Tony Parsons had gone head-to-head with Freddie Mercury on assignment for New Musical Express. The singer, who didn’t like Parsons’ pan of a Queen concert in Germany, nonetheless agreed to a sit-down over a salmon lunch at Queen’s manager’s house.
Mercury spent a good part of the interview berating Parsons for having not taste, extolling the virtues of ballet and of having an identical copy of a Nijinsky costume made for wearing onstage. Parsons warns that the “new wave” of music coming out is “at the very least causing us all to re-examine our rock credo” and that his band ran the risk of “alienating themselves.”
“Worst of all,” Parsons tells him, Queen appears “to be guilty of the cardinal sin: believing their own myth.”
Nonsense, Mercury says.
“Can you imagine,” he asks Parsons, “doing the sort of songs that we’ve written, like ‘Rhapsody’ or “Somebody to Love,” in jeans with absolutely no presentation?”
“We will stick to our guns,” he says, adding firmly, “and if we’re worth anything, we will live on.”
Published in June 18, 1977, Stewart’s New Musical Express story was entitled “Is This Man a Prat?” The answer seemed to be an implicit, emphatic “oui.”
Whether Freddie was a prat or not might not have mattered if there wasn’t a music movement in the air that seemed antithetical to everything Queen stood for. Whereas Queen were perceived as standing for glam bombast, dramatic flourishes, and ballet tights, the “new wave” of punk rock presented itself as the stripped down, raw alternative, amateurish and borderline incompetent, which was kind of the point.
All that was about to change.
News of the World hit record stores on October 28, 1977, the day after the Sex Pistols’ debut, Never Mind The Bollocks, was set out into the world. Queen’s sixth album in five years marked yet another change in style for the band, both music- and image-wise. They cut their hippy hair a bit (except for Brian’s locks, of course). The cover art, a drawing of a mid-century robot clutching at dead members of the band, decidedly differed from Queen’s coat-of-arms logo on their covers on A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races.
The music itself was also stripped-down. Gone were the overdubs, orchestration, and pastiche that had reached its hallmarks with such tracks as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Somebody To Love.” The change made sense, especially in light of the lukewarm reception of their previous record, A Day At The Races, which, besides the blistering “Tie Your Mother Down” and “White Man,” also included the rococo ritornellos “The Millionaire’s Waltz” and “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy.” Whether it was a reaction to the new zeitgeist or wanting to get back to a “rootsier” sound, as Brian May put it in 1978, News of the World was different.
And here’s the thing: instead of capitulating to punk rock or putting safety pins in their jackets, they did something else altogether.
Forget Punk Rock.
Queen invented another subgenre: Stadium Rock.
The move worked. Fueled by its double A-side single “We Will Rock You”/ “We Are The Champions,” News of the World went #1 and platinum worldwide and quadruple-platinum in the United States. Queen, once seen as a studio-manufactured hybrid of David Bowie and Led Zeppelin, had found their place on the world’s stage.
Unlike other Queen albums, News of the World merits both musical and cultural analysis. With this release, Queen threw champagne at punk’s middle finger. It’s also Exhibit A when we examine the connection Kurt Cobain had with Queen and News of the World in particular, how he played and replayed it on the 8-track in his dad’s van, draining the battery down.
It may also unlock the mystery, at least to some, why Cobain mentioned Freddie Mercury’s love of the crowd in his suicide note in 1994.
The two lead-off tracks, “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions,” songs so pervasive and embedded in our collective consciousness that we often forget these are actual songs that were written and played by human beings, so tongue-in-cheek and sincere at the same time, still drive stadiums-ful of people to cheer on or cry in victory.
They also raise the question: just how campy or sincere was Queen about all this?
As Susan Sontag writes in her landmark 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” camp’s essence lies with “its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Apolitical, asexual, and deadly serious, camp is way of looking at life extravagantly. Which sounds like “We Are The Champions.” Was “Champions” intended, as was the urban myth at the time and the evangelical Grace Baptist Church of Huntsville, AL still asserts, as a gay liberation anthem that reflects the “end-times spirit of Sodom”? Or was it all just campy fun and games?
“When Freddie first played it for us in the studio, we all fell on the floor with laughter,” Brian May told Circus magazine in 1978. While we could say the relationship between “We Will Rock You” and sporting events is a fairly straightforward one—the song is about a collective “we” rocking a plural “you,” perfect to get a crowd stomping and clapping—“We Are The Champions” is another story. Often played after a team has won a championship or gold medal or big game, with players piling up in the middle of a pitch or rink, pouring champagne over their heads in the locker room, it’s not lost on some that the soundtrack for these macho moments of largely male bonding is sung by one of the most flamboyantly gay singers in the history of rock and roll.
Can we credit Freddie Mercury for making camp-lovers of us all?
Perhaps it’s exactly this camp sensibility—at one engaged and disengaged, sincere and spurious—that attracted Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose and Lady Gaga to Queen’s music. Whatever the reason, Queen also drove rock critics insane with hatred, and it’s at the release of News of the World when the criticisms went up a notch. Queen were accused of “fascistic” and “totalitarian” tendencies on both sides of the Atlantic for these audience interaction–friendly ditties. This criticism stuck until the band ended its career in 1991, when Freddie Mercury died of AIDS.
Then, over those next twenty years, something changed. The August 1999 issue of Mojo Magazine with the band on the cover reads: “Queen: The Second Greatest Band of All Time?” The first greatest, of course, would be The Beatles. Nothing wrong with some rock critic hyperbole, especially as a corrective for a band rock critics hated during their lifetime.
But still: it wasn’t always this way. Quite the opposite.
Thirty years ago, in 1982, I was the Loneliest Queen fan in North America, with no connection to any other band fanatics. Queen’s records failed to even chart in the U.S. They stopped touring anywhere near North America. I sung those anthems by myself on headphones or in the car with the windows up.
These days, it’s hard to remember a time when Queen were out of fashion anywhere, hard to remember a time people didn’t know what song “do the fandango” and “mama mia mama mia” came from.
Type “stomp stomp clap” into the Google search engine, and the Wikipedia entry for “We Will Rock You” comes up as the first result. The next hundred or so results depict various incarnations of the rock anthem.
My favorite, an opening scene from the sitcom Cheers, shows Norm, the quintessential regular, tapping his pencil on the bar counter. He’s joined by other patrons, then Sam and Carla. Woody bangs his hands, and it’s not long before everyone sings “we will, we will rock you!”
It’s as if Queen has the whole “stomp stomp clap” locked down. That’s because they do. Like so much great rock music, its lingua franca translates across languages and cultures and stadiums, even classic sitcoms. Sometimes it sounds like it was created by aliens from space, out of any context here on Earth.
News of the World marked the first time in the band’s career when they landed on this planet, and they did so with a big metal robot reaching down to us, scooping us up, giving us permission to sing along.
- Queen’s Freddie Mercury (framework.latimes.com)
- Book Review: Mercury By Lesley-Ann Jones (confessionsofapsychotichousewife.com)
- Freddie Mercury’s artwork (lostateminor.com)
- Katy Perry could play Freddie Mercury’s girlfriend in new film of Queen singer’s life (mirror.co.uk)