One of the things about these songs you all know, is that you probably know them so well you’ve never really looked closely at them.
I could sing along to the whole of this track, but it turns out, I’ve always had a lot of nadsat style incomprehensible lyrics that I’ve just powered through. Thinking about it now, I must have just assumed it was sub linguistic vocalisations.
But it turns out there are actual lyrics throughout.
Did you know this song was about a guy called Steve?
Steve’s a badass though.
Steve walks warily down the street,
with his brim pulled way down low
Ain’t no sound but the sound of his feet,
machine guns ready to go
After Roger broke the funk seal with fun it, John takes it the rest of the way, adapting a bassline from Chic (after spending some time with them in the studio), and creating a loop that later got mashed with the same by the Grandmaster.
It’s obviously irresistible, and it feels pointless me describing it, because it’s simple and ubiquitous enough that you know it already. It’s pleasingly sparse, with a combination of synth effects and reversed piano adding tiny moments of texture, often pulled away sharply.
The core drum beat is just a simple rigid loop, and mixes blissfully with a particular Boards of Canada track, in one of my favourite mashups to pull off. It’s great, it makes the song feel haunted and lonely in a way that undermines its core aggression.
In traditional narratives, the success of this one song paves the way for the downfall of the band, luring them to try and make more disco inflected music, that further alienates their core rock audience.
I don’t know if I buy it, but I suspect I’m going to like Hot Space more than most. For me Queen have always been bringing together disparate tones and noises. Perhaps this is them at their most appropriative, in many ways, and we should highlight that, but for me, it feels more likely the beginning of their Berlin era. (Or their Munich, more precisely). Sure, they aren’t experimenting in the way Bowie did (at least on the records), but they are pulling apart their core sound, and redefining what Queen could be. This song is iconically Queen, but it sounds like little else they’ve done. Fun it is weirder, and later funk and disco tracks lack the anger and steel of this. And everything else sounds more directly like pop or rock or a tiny opera.
There is a raw sound here. Unlike anything we’ve heard from John before, this is sharp and precise and faintly brutal.
Out of the doorway the bullets rip
To the sound of the beat
It’s a fight scene set to music. A gangster film with a disco beat. It’s a dark and dangerous thing. It’s aggressive, defiant and pointedly brutal.
It all breaks down into its component parts, and Freddie’s yelps and bellows marry up with the abstracted noises and effects.
I quite like the way Freddie’s pacing matches the other elements of the track forever, whether he’s rapid firing along with the funk guitar, or imitating the weirder noises of the backing track, or just vocalising the bassline.
It means this stripped back and naked piece of music becomes a vessel for Freddie. It’s John’s track, but that doesn’t mean Freddie isn’t synonymous with every aspect. I almost feel like an instrumental version would be pointless, because Freddie is so interwoven with it. He is the fabric of this song, as immediate as the bass itself.
It’s too familiar now to imagine how striking it must have sounded on the first listen. It’s too engrained in our culture. They used to chant it on bloody Gladiators.
But I’d love to have heard it fresh. Known what it would feel like to hear this band suddenly pull their own rug out from under them, and rocket to the dizziest heights of success as a result.
It’s not my favourite track, but it’s damn striking.
And utterly unforgettable.
Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.
Illustration by Emma.