I’ve spent a lot of time recently watching a fictionalised account of the origins and development of personal computers during the period this album was recorded and released.
I also spent a chunk of last night discussing the ethics of robotic sex.
So I’m probably about ready for this slightly paranoid, but mostly exploratory expression of human machine interfacing.
Narratively, the song can’t seem to decide if it’s describing an apocalyptic vision of the future, or of the present, or a utopian one of either. It might just be paranoia, predictions of being replaced by robots or drowning in computer devices.
When the machines take over
It ain’t no place for [rock and roll]*
Freddie sings the human side, criticising and fearful, while Roger reassures as the vocodered robot.
The whole thing is actually a collaboration between Brian and Roger. And it sounds like it. There’s the throbbing experimental darkness you’d expect from Roger, and the edgy, frantic and powerful guitars you’d expect from Brian. Mack provides a bedrock of synthesised ‘demolition’ too.
So you end up with a caustically electronic stomper. It’s got weight and darkness, but accidentally sounds too rich and engaging to be as bleak as the pictures it paints.
Also, I’m giving a bit too much semantic weight to lyrics that are clearly just an attempt to chuck as many computerised puns and rhymes into as small a space as possible.
What’s that machine noise
It’s bytes and megachips for tea
It’s that machine, boys
With Random Access Memory
Different elements slowly drip into each other. Brian’s guitar riff emerges in fragments, stopping constantly, waiting to be rebooted. Freddie’s second verse starts talking over Roger’s robot. The whole thing feels like it’s relentlessly growing. Bigger, darker, more brutal. But it also feels like it’s opening out, getting warmer, fuller…more productive.
Maybe I’m wrong to detect positivity in there, but I just think it’s too warm an apocalypse. Too welcoming a beat to tell us something’s awful.
It’s software, it’s hardware
It’s heartbeat is time-share
It’s midwife’s a disk drive
It’s sex-life is quantised
It’s self perpetuating a parahumanoidarianised
I guess we’re also talking about Terminator here, but I can’t help that they’re tugging at a humanity in machines. Not finding it, but hoping for it.
And the quantised sex-life line is a perfect little bite of the future. I love the idea that Freddie is mostly worried that sex with robots could be boring because they don’t have quite enough swing in their step. Nobody wants their lovemaking run through an autocorrect, right?
It’s obviously not even as deep as that, just a set of lyrics come up with whilst flicking through the manual of your new synthesiser.
But I kind of love the world it paints, subtle details enough to detail a war taking place not on the battlefield, but in the living room. Even if it posits a conflict, it really doesn’t paint it as Skynet’s terminators, but simpler appliances.
We have no disease, no trouble of mind
We’re fighting for peace, no regard for the time
We never cry, we never retreat
We have no conception of love or defeat
There’s a real set of contradictions and questions there. Are we more worried about machines not understanding love, or not knowing defeat? Is peace worth time? What does that even mean?
It’s absurd fearful nonsense, but it nudges at all the right and real questions. Once we’ve got a computer that can do a reasonable impression of Roger Taylor, what do we do with it? How do we relate to it? Should we be scared? Horny?
And in the end, the question is simple. When the world changes, how do we live?
Living in a new world
Thinking in the past
Living in a new world
How you gonna last
Machine world… it’s a machine’s world…
Because the world had already changed. And it already has. The grand philosophical questions are occasionally useful tools, but mostly just for making us flexible enough to adapt to these changes. The question is not about whether we’ll survive the robots, still be human. The question is how we’ll live with them.
And by the time we’re asking that question, we’re probably already there. We just won’t have noticed, because it’s already that world.
Back to humans?
There’s no going back. No back to go to.
Only humans. Still figuring it out.
* Freddie definitely sings rock and roll, but the liner notes have you and me
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.