Queen in the 80s, Part 2: Hot Space

When I started this series I looked forward to it and that enthusiasm was partially warranted because I was starting off with “The Game”, a good and very popular album.

Then I realized that I would have to review the album they made after “The Game” and I started to wonder if anyone would notice if I discontinued this series about Queen studio albums released between 1979 and 1990. I’ve seen the numbers. You won’t care. But I will.

“Hot Space”, Queen’s 1982 album, contains the hit collaboration with David Bowie, “Under Pressure”. I have received a lap dance to “Under Pressure”. Not at a party by some jerk, but in a strip club by a true professional! This remains the second strangest song I’ve ever received a lap dance to (#1 being “Stan” by Eminem).

“Under Pressure” has Queen at the peak of their “The Game” success having finally become the biggest band in the world having a mindmeld with David Bowie, in the phase between the artistically successful “Scary Monsters” and the enormous commercial success of “Let’s Dance”. “Under Pressure” came out in October 1981 and made a run up the charts all over the world, remaining a classic for the vocal interplay between Bowie and Freddie Mercury and for John Deacon’s bassline (stolen outright a decade later for “Ice Ice Baby”).

Six months passed between the release of the “Under Pressure” single and the “Hot Space” album in May 1982. Whatever fans were expecting when they heard the new album, they had to be puzzled and disappointed by the sounds on “Hot Space” which were neither hot nor spacelike.

Bad albums by great artists are somehow more fascinating to me than great albums by the same just because the post-mortem contains so many possibilities. And “Hot Space” is bad.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad like “Lulu” or “Thing-Fish” or a late-period Urge Overkill album but “Hot Space” is incredibly disappointing. For one thing, where are the singles?

Going back to 1974’s “Killer Queen” from the “Sheer Heart Attack” long-player, every Queen album had at least one smash hit song that would keep people interested in the album it came from. Where was the smash hit for “Hot Space”? “Under Pressure” preceded the album release by a whole six months.

How did Queen promote their new album? With the release of “Body Language” as a single. Let that sink for a minute.

(WARNING: The members of Queen are fully dressed throughout this video)

“Body Language”, a Freddie Mercury composition, sounds nothing like any Queen song before or after it. I’ve never been in a gay bar but every time I hear this song I feel like I’ve walked into the wrong building and now I’m at the Blue Oyster from those Police Academy movies. It’s as if some Hollywood executive said “we need a song to play in the background while the main characters are entering a gay bar in this gritty action drama about two homophobic detectives trying to solve a string of murders”.

Amazingly, “Body Language” actually reached #11 in the US charts. I’m stumped as to how that’s even possible.

I’m looking at Wikipedia and it says that “Under Pressure” only made it to #29 in the US. Nothing makes sense right now.

There are at least two songs on “Hot Space” that sound like Freddie Mercury is the only band member present at the recording, “Body Language” and album opener “Staying Power”.

“Staying Power” starts off with a similar synth-bass/drum-machine riff to “Body Language” except Freddie Mercury erupts by shouting “LET ME SHOOOWWWW IT TOOO YOUUUUUUU, YEAHHHHHH!”

What are you showing me, Freddie?

They hired Arif Mardin to add some horns to the song. It literally sounds like Stevie Wonder horns over a half-assed metronome while Freddie Mercury wails on about “I wonder when we’re gonna make it. . . I wonder when we’re gonna stick it!” and occasionally there’s a guitar lick. “Body Language” is the gay bar. “Staying Power” is the VIP suite of that same bar.

There’s a lot of competition for worst song on this album, but “Dancer” by Brian May could very well take the cake. A wanna-be dance track that uses both the Phil Collins-esque gated-reverb snare, the song is about a guy who either can’t dance or is too timid to try. Brian plays his customary guitar solo over a synth bass rhythm but it doesn’t work. The sounds of Brian “Guitar Choir” May over the synth bass feels like a scoop of ice cream served on a circular saw blade.

Track 3 is John Deacon’s “Back Chat” and is the first time they sound like they’re all in the same room being a band making music together. It’s actually a decent piece of post-disco dance music. Slick, even. From a track listing perspective, it’s surrounded by a lot of terrible music because the next song is “Body Language”, a song that I can’t believe anyone enjoys unless it is ironically.

Closing out first side is Roger Taylor’s “Action This Day”, which struggles to cross between early-80s new wave and mid-60s r&b with its back-and-forth vocals between Freddie and a bunch of overdubbed Rogers. It’s fun for about two minutes and then it has a brief synth breakdown into a drunk-sounding sax solo. Given the circumstances of this album’s recording, I would not be surprised if the band met the sax player at a bar and dragged him in after it closed to cut a solo. For all we know, Roger loaded up on vodka and farted out the sax part himself.

“Put Out The Fire” is next, written by Brian May and inspired in part by the murder of John Lennon outside his NYC apartment in 1980. Years later, Brian admitted to recording the solo drunk after many failed attempts to get it right. To be fair, most of this album sounds like it was recorded under the influence of vodka, cocaine and/or exhaustion. I wish this track was better than it is because the best thing about it is the poignant transition from its final notes to the opening bells in Freddie’s “Life Is Real (Song For Lennon)”.

For the first ninety seconds, “Life Is Real” is a note-perfect Lennon homage until the guitars come in when you’re reminded that oh yeah this is Queen but even the lyrics are blunt in a Lennon-esque way (“Success is my breathing space/I brought it on myself/I will price it, I will catch it/I can take it or leave it/Loneliness is my hiding space/Breastfeeding myself/What more can I say?”) Mercury as Lennon-by-proxy or speaking about his celebrity life while musically cosplaying. It actually works.

You’ll have to excuse me if I get a small laugh out of Roger Taylor titling a song “Calling All Girls” and putting on the same album with some of Freddie Mercury’s most blatant peacocking. Freddie Mercury calling all girls. The song is fine. Incredibly, it was released as a single and the follow-up to. . . you guessed it, “Body Language”.

That just makes it funnier.

“Hot Space” is also the beginning of the band’s concept music video period. Before then, Queen videos were typically mimed performance whether they were on a stage or in Roger Taylor’s garden (where the videos for “We Will Rock You” and “Spread Your Wings” were shot).

“Body Language” featured the band surrounded by half-naked, sweaty dancers. Freddie dances with some large black women and one of the fat black women falls into a giant bachelor party cake. “Calling All Girls” features the band in a parody of George Lucas’s “THX 1138” where the band rebel against robot guards. Freddie IS THX 1138! In “Back Chat”, the band is in some sort of dystopic disco factory filled with steam and Freddie is modeling leisure wear.

Just realized that “Calling All Girls” is way more pathetic than I remember it being just for its sad attempts to recapture the magic of “Under Pressure”. The opening lyrics are “Calling all boys, calling all girls, calling all people on streets around the world.”

Then a seven-note guitar lick comes in that is vaguely reminiscent of the “Pressure” bassline. If I have it right, it is A A A A G G B while “Pressure” is D D D D D D A but to do that right after the “people on streets” reference has to be intentional.

Lastly, the wailing “love” that begins every chorus. Is it meant to be a inward version of Bowie’s echoey “love” from “Pressure”? I don’t even want to listen to this song anymore, let alone pick it apart. It’s like the band is saying “Remember that great song we did last year, remember how great that was?” Shame on them.

Two more songs round out the album. “Las Palabras De Amor (The Words Of Love)” by Brian May and “Cool Cat” a Deacon/Mercury co-write. “Palabras” is an ode to the band’s South American fans, having toured there for the first time ever the previous year. It’s the best of the three May songs here.

“Cool Cat” is one of the most hated Queen songs by Queen fans themselves. Something about it drives them nuts. It’s not very Queen, musically. Then again, nothing on “Hot Space” is Queen-esque. This is the last track and maybe Queen diehards hate it because  the realization kicks in that whatever hopes they had for this album. There’s no late-inning saving grace where everything comes back to Queen-land and we’re all better off than when we started. Nope.

On its’ own merits, “Cool Cat” is a fine song. It’s smooth, such that the guys from Yacht Rock gave it their approval on their podcast “Yacht Or Nyacht”. They gave it a 54% which means it is sufficiently smooth enough to be allowed “on the boat”. In other words, Queen made a song that verged on yacht rock and their fans still hate it. Seriously, there are fan polls and that song is always at the top of the list.

AND THEY ARE WRONG. “Cool Cat” is the only good song on “Hot Space”. It is the only song that does what it set out to do in the first place. The band attempted to make an album that explored black music: r&b, disco, funk, soul. Brian May wanted to keep rock elements involved in the mix while trying these new sounds out, which is why “Back Chat” has a guitar solo in it. There’s no Brian on “Cool Cat”, therefore Deacon gets to do whatever he wants and Freddie sings his heart out.

Oh, after all that “Under Pressure” is tacked on at the end, which is almost a slap to the genitals after everything the listener has been through. Ten songs, many of them failed genre experiments, some of them flat embarrassing but at the end here’s this song that’s not only good it’s a classic. Fuck you.

I agonized over writing this. I’ve spent way more words on this lousy album than I did “The Game” which is a bonafide classic. In my next entry in the series, I hope to get the word count back down, but it’s highly unlikely because I don’t know if you know this. . .

. . . but all we hear is radio ga ga, radio goo goo, radio ga ga.

Ooh boy.