Time Capsule: Queen, News of the World

Every Saturday, Paste will be revisiting albums that came out before the magazine was founded in July 2002 and assessing its current cultural relevance. This week, we’re looking at a time when Queen was balancing on a cliff above the abyss of obsoletion. Punk rock was on an upswing, and the London rock quartet’s sixth album was meant to be their quickest lifeline back into the hearts of the masses.

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Time Capsule: Queen, News of the World

In the mid-1970s, there was a tidal wave of change sweeping the music industry. An ear-splitting new sound was taking the forefront, as bands like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones drew attention and spurred a rising punk subculture. This new craving for music that disrupted society as much as the current state of music led bands like Queen, who thrived in the opulence of prog-rock, to adjust to put on new clothes or get left behind. Following a less-than-favorable critical reaction to their fifth album, A Day at the Races, Queen was under pressure to revive their fanbase or die trying.

Although now beloved by Queen and rock fans alike, News of the World was initially met with a lukewarm reaction from critics and fans due to the band’s style switch-up and pivot in favor towards a minimalist sound. News of the World came at a crossroads for Queen. They were on a downswing following A Day At The Races—which sold less than its predecessor, A Night at the Opera—as critics saw the album as an attempt to latch onto what was working for other popular bands, combined with a failed recreation of A Night at the Opera’s success in using unexpected effects in instrumentation without feeling overproduced. In turn, A Day at the Races was viewed as a contrived retelling of its beloved precursor and Queen was balancing on a cliff above the abyss of obsoletion. News of the World was meant to be their quickest lifeline back into the hearts of the masses.

The biggest issue surrounding News of the World is the lack of a cohesive narrative in the album—all of the songs tend to operate on their own, following whatever whim the band felt compelled to write about. This freedom gave us songs inspired by things like the death of Brain May’s childhood cat (“All Dead, All Dead”), third-person stories about a troubled young man named Sammy (“Spread Your Wings”) and a shameless sexual anthem (“Get Down, Make Love”). That whimsical embrace is what makes the album an enduring classic. While their first five albums were these grand, operatic landscapes that guided you through some form of thematic narrative, News of the World is the first time Queen ever sounded like they were having fun. It was a tough story to sell back when it was released after two back-to-back extravagant albums—A Night at the Opera was the most expensive album ever recorded at the time of its release, and A Day at the Races matched its ambition. But now, looking back with the entirety of Queen’s catalog at my disposal, it’s easy to see the importance of this collection of chaos in the progression of Queen’s arc as a band. Plus, it gave me some of my favorite Queen songs of all time.

It’s always a risk to step outside the box when a band has an established fanbase, but when the ever-changing industry demands a change, you have to put up or shut up. In the second-half of the ‘70s, arena-style rock was quickly fading away to make room for its nastier and angrier young cousin—punk. In response, Queen delivered the most straightforward album of their career. This is not to say that their sixth album left behind Freddie Mercury’s captivating flamboyance or the layered musical complexities provided by Brain May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon, but it kept those influences leaner and more spontaneous. News of the World found the band leaning into a more stripped-down version of their campy theatrics, in an effort to create a record that was punk in their own glamorous, unabashed way. This was just the beginning of Queen becoming the musical chameleon that would propel them through the transformative sound of the ‘80s and into the ’90s with effortless finesse.

Ironically enough, Queen spent the entire relatively short writing and recording process—two months, compared to A Day at the Races’s five months—of News of the World sharing the Wessex Sound Studio with a young Sex Pistols while they were making Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Their mutual occupancy led to some interesting interactions, including Sid Vicious taunting Freddie Mercury and Johnny Rotten crawling on the floor Ring style to introduce himself to the band. Even though they shared a studio, there was no overlap in production because of the contemptuous nature between the bands—most likely fueled by their disconnect in musical styles being exacerbated by the turning of the industry tides.

News of the World marks the beginning of Queen’s eclectic era. Their first five albums maintained a glam-rock presence through tracks like “Killer Queen,” “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy,” and “Sweet Lady,” but News of the World was a kaleidoscope of diverse musical styles. Though it would be inflammatory to say these influences weren’t present throughout their earlier albums, News of the World was truly a playground for each individual song to explore these generic curiosities. Queen would continue this fanciful exploration on Jazz, The Game and Hot Space, but I imagine the success of genre-blending on those albums wouldn’t exist without the intentionality they delivered in experimentation on News of the World first.

It’s odd to think that two of the most influential Queen songs resulted from an era where the band took a step back from their signature sound. Both “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions” stemmed from the band’s desire to write songs with audience participation in mind, because their live shows were becoming dominated by the audience—with them even being so loud they drowned out the band—due to their massive explosion of popularity following A Night at the Opera and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The idea of creating a song fueled primarily by crowd work came from a show on their A Day at the Races Tour, where the crowd sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to the band instead of clapping and cheering for an encore.

“We Will Rock You” has had a massive cultural impact in the 47 years since its release, and it all stemmed from Brain May’s background in physics. Yes, that’s right. Queen’s lead guitarist graduated from Imperial College in London with a degree in physics, and the science comes in with the layered stomping and clapping that make up the track’s rhythm. When imagining a huge stadium of people participating, May considered that there would be a delay in people’s rhythms based on how far they were from the stage. They layered more stomps and claps around the main recording to replicate what it would sound like live. This arena-rock style was vastly different from their previous work—and it threw out their layered production blueprint altogether. The recorded version is as a cappella as it would be live, which is a seismic shift from the grandiosity of the theatric soundscapes masterfully produced on their previous two albums. It wasn’t risky, though, to make such a shift because the songs were a gift to the fans, with the band writing a song with the intention for the audience to be the heartbeat.

“We Are The Champions” was inspired by UK football chants—now, fittingly, a sports staple as much as “We Will Rock You”—and was almost left off the album because the band was worried it was too arrogant even for them. Personally, if you are Freddie Mercury, I don’t think it’s possible to be too arrogant—though I imagine that, when he came in with a lyric like “I consider it a challenge before the whole human race / And I ain’t gonna lose,” the rest of the band was rightfully questioning his egotism. Though the lyrics initially read like the manifesto of a pompous ass, the song was really about bringing audiences together for a communal musical triumph. The solo on “We Are The Champions,” which has been lauded as some of May’s best work, was originally different. In the band’s recording process, it tended to be whoever wrote the song was in charge of taking care of the final mix. May recorded the solo early on in the studio session, but he later realized that it felt weak compared to the lofty vocal and emotional heights Mercury was trying to take the song in—so he returned and re-recorded it at the last minute. Given that the track would feel incomplete with May’s guitar battling with Mercury’s powerful vocals, we can all be glad he revisited his original contribution.

It’s hard to call News of the World underrated when it’s Queen’s best-selling studio album and has two of their most famous songs, but where it becomes under-appreciated is after the one-two-punch opening of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions.” Queen has their rightful place amongst rock royalty for their heavier songs, but they can write a damn good ballad, too. “Spread Your Wings” is up there for me, in terms of the best of Queen’s gentler side. Deacon really showcases his songwriting chops on this one and, before writing this soaring melodic rocker, he had only written two other tracks completely solo—“You’re My Best Friend and “You and I”—and had yet to deliver a real narrative experience within his songs. “Spread Your Wings” has a majorly catchy chorus, and the line “Pull yourself together ‘cause you know you should do better / That’s because you’re a free man” is so quintessential Queen that it led to Deacon getting more freedom to write on later records giving us hits like “Another One Bites the Dust” and “I Want to Break Free.”

The seven-track run from “Sheer Heart Attack” to “Who Needs You” might be one of the greatest lineups of songs on any album ever, or, at the very least, the greatest run on a Queen album. I really do think News of the World’s diverse musical influences stem from the newfound freedom Deacon and Taylor had to write more on the album—with each of them contributing two songs to the 11-track album. On past projects, they had only contributed one at most, but in this instance, they make up almost half of the album entirely. However, they are not solely responsible for the glorious chaos in the middle of the album; May and Mercury were more than happy to get wild alongside them, with the former bringing a Spanish-style guitar influence to the instrumentation of “Who Needs You” and the latter ushering in funky sex appeal on “Get Down, Make Love.”

No one can say Roger Taylor doesn’t have range. Coming from the same guy who wrote “I’m In Love With My Car” just two years earlier, it’s astounding that he created two absolute rippers for News of the World that would blow the door off of his previous work. Taylor began writing “Sheer Heart Attack” for their Sheer Heart Attack album, but drawing out the finished product actually worked for the better—as the shrill punk edge of the track fit more into the versatility of News of the World. For such a heavy track, Taylor pulled lyrical influence from “I Saw Her Standing There” at the top of “Sheer Heart Attack”(“Well, you’re just 17 / All you wanna do is disappear”), directly referencing the the Beatles’ infamous opening line (“Well, she was just seventeen / If you know what I mean”). Queen were often heavily inspired by the Beatles because they truly adored their work. Even with that reference, “Sheer Heart Attack” would have sounded out-of-place in the middle of a glittery glam-rock manifesto like Sheer Heart Attack and, instead, pairs nicely alongside the emerging punk movement of the late ‘70s alongside his other razor’s edge track, “Fight from the Inside.”

And likewise, I’ll go down swinging that “Fight from the Inside” is Queen’s most severely underrated track. It just doesn’t get as much love because Taylor took on the lead vocal, but it still blisters and breaks. Taylor recorded both “Sheer Heart Attack” and “Fight from the Inside” almost entirely by himself—two of only a handful of songs in Queen’s discography with that designation. “Fight from the Inside” is such an interesting entry in the band’s songbook, too, because it presents them as a heavy punk outfit while the bassline is rooted in funk. Those groove-centric undertones would later become overtones on “Get Down, Make Love.” It’s a relatively simple lyric, with the title being repeated along with a symmetrically constructed chorus: “Every time I get high / You wanna come down / Every time I get hot / You say you wanna cool down,” letting the psychedelia take control in true Hendrix fashion.

Though retrospectively, Mercury is associated with unabashed sexual expression, much of that energy came later in their catalog. “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy” on A Day at the Races was the first taste of his ability to get raunchy but still remained somewhat coy with implied sexual connotation in lines like “We can do the tango, just for two.” “Get Down, Make Love” throws any form of modesty out the window and gets down to business, with one of the most flawlessly written lines about oral sex ever written: “I suck your mind, you blow my head.”

Mercury’s sexuality was consistently called into question throughout his career, but the freedom allotted while writing for News of the World allowed him to publicly express his sexual desires, leading to him donning some of his most provocative looks on the News of the World Tour. Much of his lyricism on his follow-up promiscuous hit “Don’t Stop Me Now” hinted at his queerness where he refers to himself as “a sex machine, ready to reload” while saying he wants to make both “a supersonic man [and woman] of you.” “Fat Bottomed Girls” and “Body Language” kept the same explicit debauchery of “Get Down, Make Love” but took it even further, causing backlash for their overtly raunchy lyrics. The former had Freddie singing, “Left alone with big fat Fanny / She was such a naughty nanny / Hey, big woman / You made a bad boy out of me,” and the single was adorned with a cover featuring a naked woman on a bike. “Body Language” threw any implied sexual connotation out the window, with Freddie talking about how much he “want[s] your body.” “Get Down, Make Love” was Mercury’s first test and, from then on, he dove head first into writing about sex as freely as he wanted.

“All Dead, All Dead” is the closest Queen comes to the choral theatrics of their previous work, with Mercury’s voice arriving in-symphony as Taylor and May’s background vocals bring the grandiosity of things like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Somebody To Love” back to life. Yet, Queen still keeps us on our toes with the electronic flair on May’s guitar. “It’s Late” brings back those layered vocals again, but May’s jangly, lo-fi guitar riffage transforms through the addition of a tapping technique that would be made famous by Eddie Van Halen in 1978—though to be clear neither of them invented the technique. “It’s Late” follows a three-act structure—the most subversive pre-News of the World element on the album—with each verse posing as its own act. This kind of vast structure is something I would expect from Mercury’s writing far more than May’s, but the guitarist’s foray into Freddie territory works surprisingly well.

“Who Needs You” and “Sleeping on the Sidewalk” are such crazy deviations from the Queen cannon, but for some reason, they still work within the framework of News of the World as a collection. There’s something about the pure playfulness of putting these distinctively perpendicular songs not just on the album at all but back-to-back on the tracklist. “Sleeping on the Sidewalk” is the only song in the entire Queen catalog to have its instrumental portion recorded in one take—as the song lets spontaneity flourish in a way that is absent in the band’s previous work. “Who Needs You” is just three minutes of the band experimenting with a new musical style, led by the influence of Deacon, who wrote the track. “Who Needs You” mixes May’s Spanish guitar, maracas and cowbell influence with tender, sublime vocals from Mercury. The way it deviates from the band’s punk-driven mission statement on the rest of the album, it makes you appreciate the song even more.

When I say News of the World is the product of Queen genuinely coming together as a band and letting everyone bring their talents to the table, I mean it—and it even bleeds into the album artwork. Roger Taylor and his love of sci-fi are responsible for Frank, News of the World’s giant killer robot mascot emblazoned across the now-iconic gatefold. (The original Frank was drawn for the cover of Astounding Science Fiction by Frank Kelly Freas, in which the robot is holding a dead body, regretfully trying to figure out how to undo its actions.) The band approached Freas to recreate the artwork with them as the lifeless bodies in the robot’s grasp leading to Frank becoming an enduring part of Queen’s legacy and an icon of rock history.

And it’s Frank’s image where the album comes together thematically for me. While the songs intrinsically don’t have much in common, the album’s overall energy aligns with the idea that this inhuman being is coming to cause destruction—and could even take Queen down with it. It’s a metaphor for the domineering force and pressures Queen felt from the music industry, too—the pressure to fold into what was becoming popular. The band fought back by letting their creativity take hold, crafting an album that is as much in-line with the times as it is with Queen’s diverse influences and sonic arc. Frank looms over the entire album as a threat, and Queen spits back in the face of his danger, challenging the powers that be to do their worst. They bent but didn’t break, creating one of the most prolific albums of their career—all while growing together as musicians and showcasing their capabilities as a band.

News of the World concludes with a jazzy, piano-driven melody from Mercury, tying back into the album’s intro a cappella. “My Melancholy Blues” is a perfect, grounded finale for an album that was so doggedly dragged through every inch of the band’s musical impulses and so keen on resisting punk’s takeover. Queen do the most punk thing they can here: leaving us with just Mercury on the piano, crooning a—fittingly—melancholic tune about wanting to drink after your lover leaves you. It brings you to a smoky, night-drawn club, listening to a singer while you pour your heart into your glass, which feels like the calmest place to land after wading through 36 minutes of noise. Doing so might just save your career.

Olivia Abercrombie is Paste‘s Associate Music Editor, reporting from Austin, Texas. To hear her chat more about her favorite music, gush about old horror films, or rant about Survivor, you can follow her on Twitter @o_abercrombie.

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