Sunday, July 18, 2010

Freddie Mercury Makes a Bad Decision

I'm fascinated by the moments when acts momentarily lose the plot. Those occasions when desperation, a cocaine habit or just sheer wrong-headedness convince them that it would be a good idea to go off in a new bold, direction. Maybe release an album that could be the soundtrack to a film about a race of people called The Elder that the bass player has just thought up? Or how about a double album of instrumentals about plants? Clear a space on the wall for the platinum disc, Jeeves!

Queen had their wobbly moment in 1982. In a sense it was unexpected; they were following-up an album, The Game, that had got to number one in the UK and US, and had yielded two no. 1 singles in the latter country. One of those was Another One Bites the Dust, and it's tempting to imagine that Freddie Mercury concluded from this that, you know,maybe their fans would love to hear more funk and disco songs.

The result was Hot Space, a dog of an album where half the songs were unsuccessful attempts at sounding like Chic, while the other half were unsuccessful attempts at sounding like Queen. Some of the much-maligned funk stuff isn't that bad: both Staying Power and Body Language have plenty of hooks. It's the rock songs that are the real clunkers: Brian May's Las Palabras De Amor is the wettest thing he ever wrote, while it probably takes longer to listen to Calling All Girls than it took Roger Taylor to write it. The final track is Under Pressure, which was recorded and released a year before the rest of the album and sits there on the track listing like a university student at a family party, aloof and slightly embarrassed.

Yet, Hot Space was an important album for the group because it had a legacy. Queen weren't stupid, and learned their lesson. They came back in 1984 with The Works, which gave them a clutch of hits and some fresh momentum. But it was an unadventurous, by-the-numbers album, and as the 80s progressed, their records got duller and duller. A band once known for being innovative and taking risks settled into churning out tame corporate rock that had you yearning for a few Bismillahs or Galileos. Or maybe even some funky bass lines and horn arrangements. No, on second thoughts, maybe not.