At the dawn of a new decade artists must change direction or be consigned to history. This is an opinion; I have lived its truth. Major record labels look to clear out their rosters. Each new period is a discovery of sounds.
Listening to the music of Queen since the middle of the 1970s I fell in love with their sound right away. “Bohemian Rhapsody” released in 1975 on Elektra records, blended proto heavy metal with opera, and pop, giving them a unique imprint on popular music. This song changed my life. It defined Queen. Today this track is the title of a biopic that has brought them back to the spotlight.
Using studio techniques they multi-tracked guitars and their vocal tracks to create booming choruses that sounded like a thousand tabernacles. Guitar tracks sounded like orchestras. At the time many listeners had no idea Brian May’s guitar could make these sounds.
In fact the liner notes of each record stated: Nobody played synthesiser!
Fans like myself thought it was a boast. After all Rock n Roll did not need synthesisers. That was a tool used by lesser bands. In fact this early note proved how closely their fans not only listened to the music, but actually read the liner notes on the inner sleeve of the albums as well.
This is the first Queen album to use an Oberheim OBX synthesiser. This simple statement was made on the inside sleeve. I think this happened since the Red Special for the first time was not used on every song. Brian played a telecaster to get the rockabilly sound. The synth was the best of its kind at the time. Mack was determined to allow the members of Queen a new recording process.
Experimentation was their method. Freddie Mercury’s voice blended with drummer, Roger Taylor, and guitarist Brian May came out on tape sounding big. Listeners came to expect epic length, operatic bombast, and heavy rock. Roger and Brian are also good singers. They sang on every album up through 1980.
Yet following their 1970s run of hit records: “A Night At The Opera”, “A Day At The Races”, “News Of The World” and “Jazz”, creating sounds made possible by Brian May’s Red Special (a homemade guitar) and Freddie Mercury’s eight octave range, what could they do next?
The answer came in late 1979 when the single, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” was released. Growing up on American music this Elvis inspired song ends up as the band’s first #1 hit in the U.S.
Then listening to the advice of Michael Jackson they release “Another One Bites The Dust” as the second single from their upcoming summer 1980 release “The Game”. Their American label, Elektra, got the biggest single in the label’s history. Up until that time it had been The Door’s “Light My Fire”. Times had indeed changed!
Both #1 songs remain in their live set to this day. The excessive tendencies of their youth started to give way to a more stripped down, streamlined sound. Maturity was also evident in their changed image. Freddie Mercury, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor had short hair. The inner sleeve revealed the first image of Freddie sporting a mustache!
Not since 1974’s “Sheer Heart Attack” which brought them success in both the UK and US with singles like “Killer Queen”, “Now I’m Here”, and “Stone Cold Crazy” did the band sound so different in the hearts and minds of listeners. This would prove to be their topper. In America, The Game album is 4x Platinum; 4 million copies sold. Still their greatest commercial success here.
I feel strongly that Queen are much more than their hits. The Game features some overlooked tracks. Here now is a closer look at a few of them.
“Don’t Try Suicide” by Freddie Mercury.
A mix of 1950’s doo-wop and rock n roll with a haunting bass line. Stark lyrics about suicide that have Freddie’s vocals going deep. A deceptively simple arrangement that illustrates how Queen were willing to throw out their playbook with their new co-producer Rheinhold Mack (a.k.a. MACK) who had worked extensively with E.L.O., ended up working with them several more times. The word, ‘Don’t’, is repeated throughout the track. The 1980s would prove to be a terrible time for teen suicide too. This track is essential Queen in my opinion.
“Dragon Attack” by Brian May.
The bass player John Deacon is the band’s quiet man yet his bass lines are essential to Queen’s staying power (all Queen fans may groan at this pun). While recording this record at Musicland in Germany, a studio founded by Georgio Moroder, the band frequented a disco called The Shack. It is where they played some of the tracks for the first time to see how they sounded on the club’s state of the art system. I attribute this track and “Another One Bites The Dust” to Queen’s new found sound. This song features a jam which fuses funk and rock.
“Rock It” (Prime Jive) by Roger Taylor.
The song that opens side 2 features Freddie on the intro. Then Roger comes in with his vocals. This track recalls the innocence of early rock n roll music when you got ready for your big Saturday night listening to your tunes. The title is a clever play on the word Rocket appearing in the lyrics as Rock It. The subtitle Prime Jive references the pop music of the day. A spirited rocker with keen new wave grooves that allows listeners to experience past, present, and perhaps future sounds all in about 3 minutes!
Queen records were always exciting for me. You never could predict what it would sound like despite the fact it was the same 4 guys making it. The synthesiser did not swallow up any tracks. The Oberheim OBX was used at the beginning of the record to intro the title track, “Play The Game”. It’s use on the song was mixed with drums and guitars to create a unique mix of 50’s style rockabilly with future sounding new wave elements.
The synth enabled the sound effects on “Another One Bites The Dust” and “Rock It”.
The Game changed the band. More funk; More Synth Pop would follow throughout the 80’s. And there would always be hard rockers, anthems, and ballads for good measure. Always a nod to the past while creating the future.