There’s two sides to the coin here.
Firstly, this is an exercise in alienating an audience.
Secondly, this is so far up my street it’s ridiculous.
Hot Space is widely panned as a record. The band are often seen to disown it, blaming it on Freddie’s personal manager, and saying that they didn’t have much access to Freddie whilst recording it.
I’ve got no idea if that’s the case, all I’ve got is stories I’ve read and the noises I can hear. The theory is that this was an attempt to capitalise on the success of Another one bites the dust. This makes a lot of sense. One of their biggest successes in years came from trimming down their sound to something totally unlike themselves. Taking some disco inflection, repetetive beats, and making something simple and raw and powerful.
So why not make a record like that?
Well. Because people are still expecting a rock record, and if you turn around and give them this?
But fuck that. It’s a simplification, and an assumption, and it doesn’t give this record half the credit it’s due. Queen do their best when they tear up rule books. By some measures, they fail here. This record barely features on the greatest hits (and only really because of something of a bonus track, recorded separately from the rest of the record). But by others, this is a fascinating beast.
This song, for example.
Freddie plays this irresistible synth bass. Taylor programs a hell of a beat. And they put one hell of a horn section on it.
The horns are arranged by Arif Mardin, who worked with Chaka Khan and the Bee Gees. They are very pure disco. Mardin’s credited with producing and arranging ‘some hot and spacey horns’.
The song is utterly simplistic. Except for the sheer range and raging of those horns, and Freddie running all over the place. It’s got the definitive repetitive bloat of 80s electronic disco, it’s got cheap swagger all over it.
If it wasn’t for Freddie (and the odd whirring special effect), there’s nothing to tie it to Queen. The ‘building on Another one bites the dust’ doesn’t make sense yet. Here all we can hear is disco pop. A complete submission to the form. There’s very little noticeable guitar at all. Just tiny noodles, no slabs of anything.
The structure actually has some of the Queen trademarks. Despite the familiarity of the core loop, it takes the rhythm and energy to a number of interesting places. It has the building crescendos and dramatic shifts.
I wonder where we’re gonna stick it
I wonder when we’re gonna trick it
It’s bold as all hell. Basically. Opening an album by throwing pretty much everything you know out of the window, and defiantly jumping on an already undermined disco bandwagon.
Let’s not forget this is 1982. Disco was sucking (except maybe underground, where it was becoming sparser and weirder). Punk had already thrown everything up in the air. Queen’s response to the musical shifts is to dive deep into a totally different scene.
I can’t work out if there’s much authenticity in it, because at this point, disco had morphed in and out of mainstream attention so hard that it was barely recognisable.
Weirdly, it mostly reminds me of Talking Heads’ later excursions into weirdly inflected funk and disco. So in some ways this was ahead of time.
Staying Power sounds out of keeping with everything else imaginable. It’s a bold opening to a strange record. It’s tame compared to some of the later tracks, but it’s also one of the most off kilter.
Can you imagine putting this on your record player for the first time. You’ve eagerly awaited a proper Queen album for years, and the first thing you hear is that bass line. Those drums. You can barely find the guitar. The only thing you recognise is Freddie.
I can’t imagine how that would feel.
But right now, it feels challenging, amazing and like an upturned world.
I’m so proud of them, the nerve it shows.
And frankly, I think it works.
When Freddie enters into a shouting duel with a full horn section?
When Freddie’s vocal just pulses over and counterpoints itself and that rhythm. It’s incredible.
Freddie’s voice and bass line provide almost all of the variety here. The horns mostly mirror what he’s already doing. He goes with such gumption that he overwhelms.
I’m not sure I’d call it good. But I might call it great.
Freddie’s carrying a lot of weight, and I think he has actually got Staying Power.
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.