Some words on my own connection and first encounters of the band, which occurs in the wake of News of the World, on a school bus with older kids stomp stomp clap-ing on a class trip.
Introduction: Stomp Stomp Clap
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 twenty or so results depict various incarnations of the rock anthem. My favorite, an opening scene from the sitcom Cheers, shows Norm, the quintessential bar regular, tapping his pencil on the bar. He’s joined by other patrons, then Sam and Carla. Woody bangs his hands on the bar, 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.
[this is an excerpt; full draft found in Sample Chapter: Stomp Stomp Clap]
We’ll talk the state of Queen’s career up to this point, as well as the state of the band’s politics, drawing on band histories and original reporting with those close to the band.
Queen were always four distinct personalities, all of whom wrote songs, very different songs, for the band. News of the World marks the first time all four members shared relatively equal writing credits—drummer Roger Taylor (2 songs), guitarist Brian May (3), bassist John Deacon (2), lead vocalist Freddie Mercury (3).
But it’s only at this point do we see the press catching up on this idea that Queen were a proper band, as opposed to Freddie Mercury and Queen.
“Freddie Mercury is no longer the leader of Queen,” begins Rosy Horide in her January 1978 Circus cover story on the band, “Does Queen Deserve Rock’s Royal Crown?”
“Has he been fired, you ask, or is he off to pursue a solo career? No it’s simply, with the advent of News of the World LP, that the personality of the music and of Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon have come across more strongly than ever before.”
This arrangement would continue for the next five albums until the credits changed to “Queen” on their final three releases. We will talk about the late Mike Stone, the album’s engineer, who is credited with “assisted by” production credits.
The Gulf Between: About That ‘Killer Robot Monster’
“What the hell is that?” Stewie, the precocious baby screams in the animated comedy The Family Guy, screams.“A killer robot monster?” He’s just been shown the cover art to Queen’s News of the World, which has been pulled out of an attic box by the anthropomorphic dog Brian Griffin. Later, Brian reproduces the album to cover a wall in the baby’s room.
“He’s bleeding, man! He’s bleeding, and nobody’s doing anything about it!” Stewie screams. “I’ll tell you what the News of the World is—we’re in a lot of [bleep] ing trouble!”
The change in musical direction of the band would require a different kind of album art. Enter the Killer Robot Monster. Whereas the band’s first three albums feature band member photos, be it a solo Freddie Mercury (Queen, which sports the singer in profile with his archetypical sawed-off microphone) or the group (Queen II, Sheer Heart Attack), and albums four and five feature the Queen crest and Marx Brothers movie titles (A Night At The Opera, A Day At The Races), News of the World’s cover depicts what’s been described as a “benign, puzzled robot” that holds two, presumably dead, long-haired men who resemble Brian May and Freddie Mercury, and two, also presumably dead long-haired men who resemble John Deacon and Roger Taylor, who have already flown out of its hands.
Both robot and its artist have a history. Over his 40-year career, Frank Kelly Freas, an 11-time Hugo Award-winning illustrator, provided images ranging from cheesecake pin-ups for World War II bombers, ethereal images for science fiction magazines and book covers, the shoulder patch for the Skylab 1 crew, and Mad Magazine, where he refined the look of freckly-faced mascot fool Alfred E. Neuman. The robot debuted on the cover of the October 1953 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and accompanied the Tom Godwin novella “The Gulf Between.” The original robot clutches a dead man, the story’s protagonist, in his palm.
All four members of Queen were huge science fiction fans—remember, this is the band who would record the soundtracks for Flash Gordon and Highlander—and so when Roger Taylor contacted Freas in his Virginia home in 1977 and asked him reprise the image for their new album cover, and he agreed, the band were thrilled.
The result, a customized robot for their new album, is still benign and puzzled, but also holds likenesses of the band members instead of a pilot. Another image on the inside gatefold depicts the robot reaching into a broken wall, stones falling from the skies, as he grabs more small bodies, with fear-filled faces of the fleeing crowd. All in good fun, sure, and is surely a departure from the band’s crest, designed by Mercury at the band’s founding, which featured the members’ astrological signs—two lions, a cancer, a phoenix, and two fairies.
We’ll tell the story of NOTW’s artwork, Frank Kelly Freas, and the many and various promotional materials and merch the record company and band put out with this monster robot’s image. I interacted with Freas when I secured rights to use a small portion of the inside gatefold sleeve for my first book, and I will tell that story here.
Queen’s homage to classic science fiction may have produced a generation of robot-o-phobic children, however, as Stewie’s reaction attests.
“The robot killed Queen, and now he’s going to kill me!”
“We Will Rock You” (May): Stomp, Stomp Clap Across Space and Time
The first part of this chapter covers both inspiration and recording of “We Will Rock You,” the most famous stadium rock anthem of all time. Before its recording, Queen, particularly Freddie Mercury and Brian May, were looking for ways to integrate the audience into their shows in pre-orchestrated ways.
“On this particular night, the place was packed and heaving and sweating,” Brian May explained in 1998. “It was an amazing gig. And when we came off, they didn’t stop singing. They sang to us. They sang ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ to us.
“And we thought, ‘Something is really happening here. It’s a complete interaction. I remember talking to Freddie about it. I said, ‘Obviously, we can no longer fight this.’”
“And that night, in the middle of the night, I woke up and thought, ‘What would an audience do, if you gave them permission, what would they do?’ They could stamp. They could clap. They could sing something which made them feel bonded together, which made them feel strong.”
“This has to be something which is part of our show and we have to embrace it, the fact that people want to participate — and, in fact, everything becomes a two-way process now. And we sort of looked at each other and went, ‘Hmm. How interesting.’”
“We Will Rock You,” Brian May’s first effort into the group participation anthem, in many ways became bigger than the band itself. We will talk about the lyric, a strange little ditty about a protagonist, one “Buddy,” and his rise and fall, and determination to rock us. Along with “We Are The Champions,” these triumphalist songs— vainglorious, inclusive, unabashedly immodest—would provide an explosive concert finale for the rest of Queen’s career.
We will look into the curious recording techniques and live performances of WWRY, in particular the “fast version.” The average listener assumes the recording features actual stomps and actual claps, or drums, when in truth the sounds come from wooden boards slapped on the innards of a piano repeated in a very specific, scientific way, which draws on Brian May’s background in physics and astronomy.
We will talk about the way Queen stacked their vocals—part Beach Boys, part Les Paul and Mary Ford, part canon-like contrapuntal imitation—and how “We Will Rock You” works as a stripped-down version of the more bombastic multitrack harmony efforts (“Bohemian Rhapsody” and “The Prophet’s Song” from A Night At The Opera, for example).
The second part of this chapter takes WWRY across the sports stadiums, hip-hop remixes, cover versions, and stomp-stomp-claps across space and time. More than 30 years after the song was released, it’s “become part of public life,” says Brian May, the song’s writer, told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2010. “Which I feel wonderful about. It’s fantastic to me if I go to a, you know, football game or a soccer game anyplace all around the world, and there it is.”
“I think, ‘My God, most people don’t even realize that I wrote it,’” said Brian May, again to Terry Gross. “Most people don’t realize that it was written.”
We will examine the forebears and inheritors of the stomp-stomp-clap, one of the most famous beats in the history of music, from drum circles to Meters’ “Hand Clapping Song” and Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 1 and 2” to Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music” and Weezer’s “Beverly Hills.” One model for this section is Nate Harrison’s video-essay on the history of the “Amen Break,” a six-second break from the b-side of a chart-topping single, “Color Him Father,” by The Winstons from 1969. Like the “Amen Break,” “We Will Rock You” has been placed into the public sphere, reshaped, remixed, and reused. It’s been sampled and remixed by everyone from Fatboy Slim, Grandmaster Flash, Lady Gaga, and Rawkwon, and reappropriated in hip-hop tracks such as Sly Foxx (“Let’s Go All The Way”) and Boogie Boys (“Fly Girl”).
We will include re-creations by the band itself (e.g., British boy band 5ive, Paul Rodgers, Anastasia, all with Brian May and Roger Taylor billed as “Queen +”), along with covers by Warrant, Styx, Nickelback, Iron Maiden, Celine Dion, Korn, My Chemical Romance, and radical rearrangements by Jamaica Soundsystem, Japanese noise band Melt Banana, and Linda Ronstadt (a lovely lullaby version). Let’s not forget “Wienerschnitzel,” by the Dutch musical duo De Gebroeders Ko, a parody of the track to support a football team, promote weinerschnitzels, or both (it’s not clear).
Those familiar with listening to “We Will Rock You” on the radio—and who hasn’t in the civilized world?—know that, when Brian May’s final A-chord ends, odds are we will hear Freddie Mercury’s voice singing about how he has “paid his dues, time after time.”
Many consider “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions” the same song in two movements, or at least companion pieces. With a total combined running time of five minutes (2:01 and 2:59, respectively) it makes sense they were often played on the air as a two-fer, at least on FM radio.
Originally, “We Will Rock You” was ‘Champions’’s B-side, until radio DJs played sides B and A, in that order. This led to the two songs, as a dual-A side, to reach #1 on the singles chart as “We Are the Champions/We Will Rock You” on the Record World Charts at the beginning of 1978.
We’ll talk about “Champions,” the way it was recorded, its inspiration, the lyrics and arrangement. We’ll also look at “Champions” remakes, which include everyone from Green Day, The Bad Plus, Liza Minnelli at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, to re-do covers by Queen + Robbie Williams, Paul Rodgers, and with Adam Lambert on the 2009 American Idol finalé.
The second part of this chapter will be an exploration of camp, or “Camp,” and its deep association with Queen’s music, particularly “We Are The Champions.” A proper study of Queen would never be complete without studying its relation, and in particular Mercury’s, to the notion of camp. It’s a topic that could take up an entire book, or at least a few chapters. As Susan Sontag writes in her landmark essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” such a sensibility “is one of the hardest things to talk about.”
We’ll give it a try. An exploration of “We Are The Champions,” looked through a camp lens, provides us with an opportunity to have several points of entry, both lyrically and musically. Is “We Are The Champions” tongue-in-cheek, sincere, or both? Or is it a gay liberation anthem? Or was “Champions” intended, as the Grace Baptist Church of Huntsville, AL, evangelical Christians assert, as a gay liberation anthem that reflects the “end-times spirit of Sodom”?
“When he first played it for us in the studio, we all fell on the floor with laughter,” Brian May told Circus in 1978. “So many people in the press hate us because we’ve side-stepped them and got where we have without them. But there’s no way the song says anything against our audiences. When the song says ‘we,’ it means ‘us and the fans.’”
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 more complicated. Often played while a team has won a championship or gold medal or big game, with players piling up in the middle of a pitch or rink or 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.
When Freddie sings that “it’s been no bed of roses, no pleasure cruise” and of having his “share of sand kicked in my face,” it’s fairly obvious the “I” embodies a non-macho, even effeminate protagonist who overcomes obstacles from some version of an establishment (dues, sentence, mistakes, sand), which then becomes a “challenge to the whole human race.”
It has occurred, even to the most casual Queen listener, that there is an irony how this hypermasculinized sports anthem is sung by Freddie Mercury, a gay man, albeit not completely out of the closet at the time, but someone who was the lead singer of a band named Queen and who wore sparkly ballet tights on stage.
In 2006, music scholar Ken McLeod, writing in Popular Music and Society, explores what he calls the “paradoxical social and sexual codes engendered by the relationship of sports and popular music,” especially when the crowds cheers on their macho athletic heroes while singing along to Queen, Pet Shop Boys, or Village People songs. These anthems, McLeod writes, “are the often the products of gay icons and contain overt lyrical celebrations of homosexuality. As such, they problematize the typical heterosexual masculine associations of music and sport.”
“Champions,” then, brings up some of the central questions camp itself brings up. Can there be multiple receptions of the same work of art, one that is completely earnest, and the other insincere and subversive, and others for whom these things don’t matter?
Sheer Heart Attack” (Taylor): ‘I Feel So Inarticulate,’ When Freddie Met Sid
“Sheer Heart Attack,” the fast-paced, anarchic rocker penned by Roger Taylor, is seen as an answer or kiss-off to punk rock. In this chapter, we talk about Queen’s relationship to punk around this time of their career as well as some rather random intersections.
The Sex Pistols’ infamous appearance on UK’s Today Show, which occurred on December 1, 1976. Host Tom Grundy, who claimed earlier in the broadcast that he was drink, insulted band members and goaded them “say something outrageous,” resulting in the third, fourth, and fifth use of the word “fuck” on British television (first by Glen Matlock, second and third by Steve Jones), and bringing notice punk rock. All of this would not have happened if it wasn’t for another band’s last-minute cancellation. The band, you might have guessed, was Queen.
That News of the World was released in October 28, 1977, the day after the Sex Pistols’ debut Never Mind The Bollocks was set out into the world, is not insignificant. Both albums were recorded in adjacent studios the previous July in London’s Wessex Studios.
This is where the infamous meeting of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury and erstwhile Pistols bassist/mascot Sid Vicious is the stuff of legend and merits its own chapter section. One of this chapter’s goals is to provide the definitive account of this meeting, told from as many perspectives as possible; this will include Queen roadie Peter Hince, Freddie Mercury, Brian May, and my own interviews with Queen biographer Jim Jenkins and longtime fan club president Jackie Gunn.
“Sid was a moron, you know,” Roger Taylor says in recent documentary. “He really was an idiot.”
Taylor was also the Queen member who was most concerned about staying current and informed by the pop music scene. This is probably why Taylor is also the Queen member who spoke on record about punk rock. We’ll trace Queen’s relationship to punk around this time, the recording of the song itself—it had been kicking around in the studio since the 1974 album of the same name. Live, “Sheer Heart Attack” became a encore staple on ensuing tours, and usually left the stage covered in toppled amps, screaming feedback, and Freddie Mercury humping and kicking Taylor’s drum set.
“All Dead, All Dead” (May): Squeaky
Queen’s production style may have been scaled back for News of the World, but that doesn’t mean their whiplash-causing, intra-album shifts of style and tone would stop. Somehow the shifts from bombast to ballad are just as extreme here as in previous albums. A Day At The Races, for example, begins with a layered guitar loop, followed by their hardest rocker to date, “Tie Your Mother Down,” followed by the Freddie-and-piano ballad, the lieder-like “You Take My Breath Away.”
In this same fashion, “Sheer Heart Attack” ends in abrupt silence, followed by “All Dad, All Dead,” a Brian May-sung, funereal ballad that has been described as in the style of a solo Paul McCartney. To these ears, the double-tracked vocals on the choruses, along with Brian’s whispery voice, recalls the formula indie balladeer Elliott Smith would employ in decades to come. We also have by song’s end one of the more lovely Brian May multitracked guitar solos, which recalls the end of Led Zeppelin’s 1973 single “Over the Hills and Far Away.”
But to talk about this song in depth means we have to address what I call the Dead Cat Issue. It might be hard to believe that one of Queen’s most heartfelt ballads is about a dead cat. But it is. And that cat’s name is Squeaky. The Mays’ family cat, it seemed, had passed away at some point in 1977, and “All Dead, All Dead” marks that occasion. There are connections of Queen and cats, but most have to do with Freddie’s brood at his home in Garden Lodge.
“Spread Your Wings” (Deacon): Sweeping Up at the Emerald Bar
Who was Sammy? And what’s the Emerald Bar? And why is he small? We may never know. John Deacon, who wrote “Spread Your Wings,” retired from the music business in 1997, and is now as reclusive as Thomas Pynchon or the late Syd Barrett. Only a few photographs has surfaced of him in the past 15 years.
The truth is, even if Deacon was still an active member of Queen and was open to interviews, we may never know more about him or his songs. It is Deacon, after all, who, in Queen’s last group interview in 1986, when asked by the BBC who was his favorite current band, answered, in complete deadpan, “Bananarama.”
John Deacon was the proverbial “Quiet One,” a role reserved for the rock band bassist, but he was also Queen’s secret weapon. Even by the midpoint of Queen’s career, Deacon had already scored a top 40 hit for the band with “You’re My Best Friend” which he penned two years earlier. That song, the AM hit counterpart to AOR FM staple “Bohemian Rhapsody,” played just as much of a role as “Killer Queen” in cracking the pop charts for the band, laying the groundwork for ‘Rock You/Champions’ and, later, Queen’s biggest worldwide hit, also penned by Deacon, “Another One Bites The Dust.”
At this point, however, Deacon is still honing his songwriting chops. It’s easy to forget that “Spread Your Wings” was released as a single, at least in Europe, and it cracked the top 40 in the UK, reaching #34 in March 1978.
What are we to make of “Spread Your Wings” all these years later? I’ll try to put this diplomatically: Deacon’s songs always had more a sweet, even saccharine, component to them. They were earnest, more influenced by R‘nB and top 40 than any other member of the band (which does call into question whether Deacon was not kidding by name-dropping Bananarama). “Spread Your Wings” lyric tells a story—Sammy, the song’s protagonist, wants to leave his job sweeping at a place called The Emerald Bar, and spread his wings. “Spread Your Wings” engages in the tradition of songs that tell a story –from Joni Mitchell’s “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” Harry Chapin’s “The Cat’s In The Cradle,” or The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”
Freddie Mercury’s emotional interpretation of the story gets past its ridiculousness and makes the story seem real. As an 11-year-old, listening to this song a couple years after the album’s release, I would sing along so earnestly that I thought I was Sammy, and I needed to spread my wings. That’s the power of adolescence, but also the power of narrative song, recorded live, with no overdubs on guitar or vocals. We’ll cover the BBC version, with a different, rockier ending , in a later chapter.
“Fight From The Inside” (Taylor): The Drummer’s Turn
It might be a slight surprise to non-Queen fans that it was Roger Taylor, the band’s drummer, who was the first band member to go solo. By News of the World, Taylor had in fact already embarked on a solo career. In the summer of 1977, he released a solo single—“I Wanna Testify,” a cover of the Parliaments’ 1967 hit, and even lip-synced to it on Marc Bolan’s TV show. “Fight From The Inside” comes from the same solo sessions. Roger is the only musician and vocalist on the track, save added guitar from Brian May.
In this chapter, we’ll talk about “Fight From The Inside,” how it fits in the Taylor oeuvre, and the importance of the throwaway track on a Queen album.
Freddie Mercury was a gay man. Not heterosexual or bisexual or any other variety of sexual proclivity. He was a homosexual man. Freddie did have a steady girlfriend in the early 70s, Mary Austin, who remained his lifelong friend and main beneficiary of his will when he died in 1991. But still.
Twenty-plus years after his death, the subject of Freddie Mercury’s sexual preference still seems up for debate, at least in some circles. Otherwise well-meaning Queen fans assert Mercury’s bisexuality by way of their discomfort of having their favorite band’s singer being gay. Bisexual advocates have claimed Mercury as a member of their tribe, which only muddies the water further. Most Queen fans assert their singer’s sexuality is irrelevant, that it’s all about the music.
All biographical information indicates that, after 1975, Freddie Mercury lived his life as a gay, many say sexually voracious, gay man. In this chapter on “Get Down, Make Love,” Freddie Mercury’s most explicit song, it seems appropriate to explore the singer’s sexuality head-on.
I was one of those boys who, entering adolescence, couldn’t wrap his head around idolizing a gay man asking, as he does in this song, someone else to “blow my head.” Current generations are more accepting, it seems, in cheering on rock heroes who are out as gay men or women, but in the late 1970’s, the subject was very much taboo or unspoken. If nothing else, “Get Down, Make Love” introduced the idea of sexuality in a band that had avoided the subject, at least explicitly.
The song itself is a strange one. With a long bridge straight out of the “Whole Lotta Love” mold, May employs delay and echo and Mercury drenches his vocal track with effects. Both Zeppelin’s and Queen’s bridge mimics the sexual act itself, its spacey undulations. “It is the future generation that presses into being.” Schopenhauer writes, “by means of these exuberant feelings and supersensible soap bubbles of ours.” Queen’s “Get Down, Make Love” is one supersensible soap bubble of a song.
We’ll tackle the sexual ambiguity in Queen’s lyrics, as well as Nine Inch Nails cover of the song.
“Sleeping on a Sidewalk” (May): May’s Blues
Another story-song, this time sung by Brian May, “Sleeping on a Sidewalk” is about as close to a straightforward blues song Queen has ever released.
It’s not an aberration, however: Queen’s inspirations were varied, but blues was always one of the main sources, from their first album—(“Son and Daughter,” which resembles Jimi Hendrix in his Band of Gypsys period)—to later cuts (May’s Star Fleet Project, cut with session musicians and Eddie Van Halen, features a 9-minute “Blues Breaker,” dedicated to the English blues master himself, “EC,” or Eric Clapton).
We’ll talk about “Sleeping on a Sidewalk” in this chapter, the few times it’s been performed live—a one-off show when Queen received their space on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, another one-off with Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters and Roger Taylor in 2010—and whether this song was really done in one take, as the band biographies seem to attest.
“Who Needs You? (Deacon): Deacon’s Finest Hour?
John Deacon’s Latin-influenced “Who Needs You” anticipates his worldwide 1984 his number one, “I Want To Break Free.” It’s one of this writer’s favorite Queen songs, a staple of “conversion mixes” I have made for people who I want to appreciate the band over the years, and not just for their obvious hits. We’ll talk about how John Deacon plays 6-string guitar on the track, the mistake Brian makes in his solo, and whether this is, commercial considerations aside, John Deacon’s finest hour.
“It’s Late” (May): A Three-Act Play, The Kurt Connection
Growing up, Kurt Cobain and his father would take weekend trips in the family van to his work at a logging company. Kurt would take naps and listen to Queen’s “News of the World” on 8-track, over and over again, and drain the battery on the van.
“Then we’d be stuck,” Cobain told rock journalist Michael Azerrad. “That happened a few times—we’d get stuck after work with a dead battery because I listened to Queen too much.”
Cobain’s words, depicted in the documentary About a Son, plays over footage of a logging factory and is accompanied by “It’s Late.” It is strangely affecting, re-creating Cobain’s sleepy Saturdays in the Pacific Northwest. It also re-confirms the Nirvana frontman’s deep connection to the band.
“I wondered for a long time what Kurt’s connection with us was,” Brian May wrote on his website in October 2007. “I had heard various things third-hand—good things. So now we know.”
May also mentions Kurt’s mention of Mercury in his suicide note (“…when we’re back stage and the lights go out and the manic roar of the crowds begins., it doesn’t affect me the way in which it did for Freddy [sic] Mercury who seemed to love, relish in the love and adoration from the crowd, which is something I totally admire and envy”), which will be covered here in this chapter, along with Courtney Love’s reading of it over a PA system in Seattle 1994.
We’ll take a look Cobain’s connection to the band, in particular with News of the World, as well as the “three-act play” lyric structure of “It’s Late.” We’ll take a look at the 45rpm edit of the song—it was released as a single in the United States, but failed to chart. Also, for the guitar nerds, we’ll explore a short history of guitar tapping. Used in the solo, Brian May employs guitar tapping just months before Eddie Van Halen took it to the masses with Van Halen’s first album in February 1978.
“My Melancholy Blues” (Mercury): ‘Another Party’s Over’
Freddie’s torch song ends NOTW, and with no guitar track at all. It might not make sense for any other heavy metal band to end a set with a jazzy song, complete with brushes and running bass, but this is Queen, we must remember.
The use of pastiche is one of Queen’s stock in trade, and while this might not be for jazz what Freddie Mercury did with gospel in “Somebody to Love” or opera in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it still is an interesting exercise, strangely affecting, and checks off yet another style the band had interpreted through their sound.
Rest assured, the word “camp” will come up in this chapter as well.
‘You Saps!’: Tracking Down the Critics who Panned the Band
It can’t be understated how rock critics reviled Queen. A typical example is the Rolling Stone’s Bart Testa, who pulls no punches in his review of News of the World.
“We Will Rock You,” he writes, “has the atmosphere of a political rally in a Leni Riefenstahl movie and is at once a rock anthem and a commandment.”
“In which the group that last January brought us a $7.98 LP to boycott,” Robert Christgau writes, “devotes one side to the wantonness of woman and the other to the futile rebelliousness of the doomed-to-life losers (those saps!) (you saps!) who buy and listen.
One item up for discussion will be Randall Roberts’ 2011 presentation at the Experience Music Project, “Dave Marsh-Ing My Mellow,” which tracks the preferences and biases of rock critics, using the Rolling Stone Record Guide as its focus point.
The Dave Marsh in the title, of course, was the taste-maker of Rolling Stone for so many years, who deified bands he loved (The Who) and dismissed those he hated (Blondie, Queen, to the point of calling them “fascist”). He still has his disciples and fellow practitioners (Robert Christgau, Tom Moon, David Fricke, Ken Tucker), and it’s a wonder anyone pays attention to them anymore for advice on which records to buy or download, but they do. In recent years, however, the tide has turned. Perhaps revisionism isn’t the correct word, but safe to say the Christgau-Marsh-Moon-Fricke pedigree is no longer considered sacrosanct in the age of Pitchfork and Metacritic. Here’s an excerpt from Roberts:
Matthew Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces offered his recollections of the Guide during a recent conversation: “I bought [Public Image Ltd.’s] Metal Box and Gang of Four’s Entertainment! because it said that those records were 5 stars. But there are some things that don’t make any sense. Like, Dave Marsh hates Queen. When I was younger I wasn’t a Queen fan, but it’s unfortunately arbitrary—to not see the hard work and intelligence, even if you think it’s misguided. There was a canon. The Band were good. Queen was no good. Black Sabbath? Not good. Then you get older and you say, no, Black Sabbath was good, and the Band only made one-and-a-half really good records.
In this chapter, we’ll talk about the state of rock criticism in 1977-78 as it compares to today, in particular the often hyperbolic reaction to Queen, a band that went multi-platinum and sold out stadiums despite almost universal critical revulsion. We’ll track down some of the authors of those incendiary reviews, see if they changed their minds, or if they will stick to their guns.
To the Vaults: The Unreleased Material
Unlike many other bands of its era, Queen aren’t known for their vast collection of bonus materials. There aren’t loads of alternative takes, abandoned demos, bonus tracks or non-album B-sides. There are some that bear mentioning, however. Queen had three BBC recording sessions: the first two in 1973 and 1974 were in the beginning of their career, and included tracks from their first two albums (Queen and Queen II).
And then there are the 1977 sessions at Maida Vale Studio on October 28, 1977, broadcast two weeks later on the BBC Radio and in the U.S. on the King Biscuit Flower Hour. Even with the recent 2011 reissues, Queen Productions saw fit to include only two of the session recordings: of “My Melancholy Blues” and “Spread Your Wings.” There still remain a two Great White Whales of unreleased Queen material: the blistering “slow/fast” version of “We Will Rock You” and “It’s Late” with the “Whole Lotta Love”-like bridge from “Get Down, Make Love” replacing the original.
Those four songs remain among the most bootlegged Queen recordings ever. And with good reason: during this session the band “sounded as if Led Zeppelin had run smack dab into Ziggy-era David Bowie while he was shopping for mascara in the mall,” as Wolfgang’s Vault listing describes it. While it’s useful to talk about some of the Tracks That Got Away, even better would be to talk to the very people who hold the keys to the Queen Vaults.
With band archivist Greg Brooks, as well as others, we’ll go over the unreleased and the officially released, the bootlegs and the bonus material from News of the World. There are, for example, the bonus tracks from the 2011 Universal reissues, including “Feelings, Feelings,” a rocker that didn’t make the final cut and has been one of Queen’s most bootlegged tracks, as well as two from the Maida Vale BBC sessions. We’ll also take a look at the Rick Rubin “ruined” remixes of “Rock You” and “Champions,” from the 1991 Hollywood reissue, to which Chad Smith and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers added bass and drums.
Afterword: Of The World
Final thoughts on News of the World. Queen’s career after this album.
Some more personal recollections of my fandom.
 “Killer Queen,” Season 10, Episode 16; first aired March 11, 2012.
 “Top Pop Records,” New York Times. 19 January 1978 C13.
- Sample chapter from rejected 33-1/3 proposal for book on Queen’s News of the World: “Stomp Stomp Clap.” (danielnester.com)
- FREDDIE MERCURY: ‘The Great Pretender’ DVD, Blu-Ray Coming In September (blabbermouth.net)
- Freddie Mercury – Lost Freddie Mercury Footage Unearthed For New Dvd (contactmusic.com)
- FREDDIE MERCURY & MONTSERRAT CABALLE – ‘Barcelona’ 2012 Video Posted (bravewords.com)
- Freddie Mercury Doco On The Way (noise11.com)