Queen began life as a progressive heavy rock band releasing two influential self-titled albums (1973’s Queen and 1974’s Queen II; chapter-one in the band’s history), however it wasn’t until the release of their breakthrough hit “Killer Queen” that the band really found their niche. A departure, stylistically diverse, Queen’s trademark was born on that track, with the supreme musicianship of Brian May (guitar), John Deacon (bass) and Roger Taylor (drums) and the stage presence of the unitard-clad singer Freddie Mercury – one of the greatest frontmen in rock history.
Wildly popular and mildly erratic albums followed, and like career highlight Sheer Heart Attack (1974), continued to be a mixture of hard rock, cabaret, glam and mock-opera. Queen traversed the gap between glam and British heavy rock and considered the spiritual fathers of arena rock. Throughout career-standout albums such as A Night at the Opera (1975) and News of the World (1977) Queen didn’t only wear their hearts on their sleeves, but had buckets of humour without pastiche – and immense anthemic rock besides.
By the end of the 70s though Queen dispensed of their traditional harder rock edge and had infused funk and pop into their sound and connected those influences to disco thanks to chunky basslines that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder record. Releasing the mega-selling if erratic The Game (1980) and the concurrently-recorded soundtrack Flash Gordon (1981) (someone else can defend that one), the band were increasingly under the direction of the now disco-obsessed Mercury who undertook an shameless headlong exploration in the crossroads of new wave and pop-funk for 1982’s dance-oriented Hot Space, much to the disgruntlement of his bandmates. This change of style was greeted with horror and outrage from their original hard rocking fanbase and apart from the colossal UK #1 hit Bowie duet “Under Pressure”, the album’s new sound was met with overwhelming disinterest from the general record-buying public as well.
Recorded in Munich while the band was at their most fractured, Hot Space has the reputation as something of a glitch in their discography and a snubbed embarrassment in the band’s recorded history. True, there is an abundance of rapid-fire drum machines, enough synthesizer to start an avalanche, echo; it’s all here, delivered playfully by Mercury whose vocals sound as over-emotive as his most vibrant nightclub fever-dreams.
Let’s get the good stuff out of the way. The remarkable “Under Pressure” is the closing song on the album, and it goes without saying that it is certainly the best and most explosive track here by a long long way. It is, and belongs, on every Queen and even Bowie “best of ” compilation ever released – end of story. Opener “Staying Power” and fiery “Action This Day” are exhilaratingly flamboyant anthems that would not be out of place on A Day at the Races (1976). Better still is “Put Out The Fire” and “Dancer” which delve familiar earthshaking hard rock territory, of some vigour, kept only, alas, from becoming another, say “We Will Rock You” by shallow production; still, all deserve rediscovery.
And yet, there are trifles like the hilariously slick “Body Language” Freddie’s quest for nookie. It’s both nonsense on stilts and a good excuse to show off computerised whooshes and synthetic drums; it unsurprisingly stalled in the UK charts at #11, however the album is worth owning for this silly, frolicsome track – even for comic value alone.
The clunky “Back Chat” and high-pitched “Cool Cat” suffer badly, lavished with unnecessary production techniques of the day; they are the only inane songs on the album although an improvement on something like the dreadful “Fun It” off the patchy Jazz (1978) album. Elsewhere the lovely piano ballad “Life is Real (Song for Lennon)” and catchy rocker “Calling All Girls” are both soulful and memorable, performed tastefully – something not generally associated with Hot Space.
It may not be Queen’s zenith, however all things considered Hot Space is a vivacious, listenable digression with enough multi-layered backing vocals and pile-driving Brian May guitar solos to please the most fastidious of Queen fans. Follow-up album The Works (1983) was a much needed career-saver from the Queen we love: earthshaking hard rock (“Radio Ga Ga”, “Hammer to Fall”) and humorous unabashed pop (“I Want to Break Free”, “It’s a Hard Life”), without the excursions into drum machine synth-pop and over-sexualized rock-funk fusion.
Queen would recover from this commercial flop most impressively at the Live Aid concert in 1985 where the band put on nothing short of one of the greatest live performances of all time.
1. Staying Power ∗∗∗
2. Dancer ∗∗∗
3. Back Chat ∗∗
4. Body Language ∗∗∗∗
5. Action This Day ∗∗∗∗
6. Put Out the Fire ∗∗∗∗
7. Life Is Real (Song for Lennon) ∗∗∗∗
8. Calling All Girls ∗∗∗
9. Las Palabras de Amor (The Words of Love) ∗∗
10. Cool Cat ∗∗
11. Under Pressure ∗∗∗∗∗