The story goes that at some point during the ludicrously fertile recording sessions for this record, Roger Taylor said ‘let’s give them the works’.
And they did.
And watch that video, by the way. A deal with Giorgio Moroder (who had worked with Freddie on his solo track Love Kills) and the Communist East German government allowed the band to insert themselves into Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. They spend half the video lounging in a car on a futuristic black and white skyway. It’s the best.
The album comes in at only nine tracks, but four of them deservedly made their way to the greatest hits compilations. The odds are that if you think of an eighties Queen track that isn’t Under Pressure, you’re thinking of a track from this album.
And this is one of the largest.
The record opens with the most synthesised of all possible drums, eventually joined by a Jupiter 8 synthesiser, and guest electrician Fred Mandel slowly integrating an arpeggiated bassline out of the whole thing. Other synths wash all over you, slowly broadening the track. John’s conventional bass joins in, sultrily seducing and sliding.
And Freddie sings.
It’s a plaintive song. Pleading nostalgically, whilst criticising and looking to the future. It sounds like the future of music. The video presents a dystopia, ruled over by the band. The song title is based on Taylor’s tiny child slagging off a band on the radio. The song clearly longs for people huddled around the radio. Remembers it as a childhood friend. It nods to huge historical moments from Welles to Churchill.
It refuses to make its mind up. It refuses to let you go.
It just gets bigger, more expansive. More lustrous.
After Hot Space was panned, the band needed to restate their identity. They held onto the synth and programming, but abandoned much of the funk and disco. They had to do something as epic and sweeping as their old hits, but having gone through all the changes pop had gone through since then. They could’ve gone hair metal, doubled down on the guitar, and forgotten what they’d learnt. But they didn’t, they went the other day, and became the synth era band we remember.
With this. This huge, sweeping, stirring anthem. It’s a track for bringing people together. It’s a track for clapping, for singing along.
So don’t become some background noise
A backdrop for the girls and boys
Who just don’t know or just don’t care
They throw the kitchen sink and sticking in your memory. Vocoder, synth, repetition. A hundred hooks.
But at the same time, the whole thing is so heavily focussed on Mandel’s arpeggiator. That the first half of the solo section is ceded entirely to an almost concrete thudding, only slowly being joined by May’s glass-slide guitar. It speaks of something huge and terrifying. It offers a darkness to the record, a thudding, throbbing denatured cruelty.
It is, frankly irresistible.
It’s Roger, going for that angry, conflicted nostalgia he’s always held for rock and roll, and (with Freddie’s help, apparently) turning it into one of the most broad, warm and kindly anthems you’d ever hear.
Radio Ga Ga is a band reasserting its importance. Saying nothing, except that they’ve got something to say, and they are going to say it loudly.
Radio, Someone still loves you!
It’s a riposte to Buggles, or an assent. It’s hard to say.
I just know it feels me with a genuine glee.
It doesn’t feel half as experimental as the best of Hot Space, but it maintains some of the edge. Just enough to cut deep.
And listen to the way John plays bass as a kind of duelling compliment to the synth. There’s so many lovely touches here. It feels like the song belongs to John, even if it’s written by Roger. The bass makes it, ever so quietly.
Bah. I don’t need to say it, just listen. Watch. Sink into it.
Radio Ga Ga.
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.