Queen: Crowning Achievements
Unlike so many colossal rock acts of the “dinosaur” mid Seventies, Queen were able to make a transition into the Eighties— not only surviving but triumphing. They did so not by “selling out” to disco, as some feared back then, but by being willing to move with the times and reinvent themselves. The Game was the first of many Queen collaborations with the German producer Mack, who was to be as integral to their Eighties career as Roy Thomas Baker had been to their sonic identity in the Seventies. The Game yielded another substantial Queen hit, Mercury’s rockabilly-tinged “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” It was the first record on which Mercury played guitar, although hardly the first time Mercury’s guitar input had had an impact on Queen’s music.
“Freddie could come up with great guitar riffs,” says May. “The heavy part of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ [“So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye…”] was Freddie’s riff. He also wrote ‘Ogre Battle’ [from Queen II], which is a very heavy metal guitar riff. Freddie used to pick up a guitar and he had a great, frenetic energy. It was kind of like a very nervy animal playing the guitar. He was a very impatient person, and he was impatient with his own technique. He didn’t have a great technical ability on the guitar. But he had it all in his head. You could feel this stuff bursting to get out.”
“Crazy Little Thing Called Love” is also one of the few tracks in the entire Queen catalog on which May did not play his Red Special. (Another is “Long Away,” which was performed on a Burns 12-string). For “Crazy Little Thing” May used “an ancient Telecaster that was lying around the studio where we recorded the album, Musicland in Munich.
“Mack forced me to use it. I said, ‘Look, I can do this with my guitar.’ Because the bridge pickup has certain tones that sound like a Telecaster. But Mack said, ‘If you want it to sound like a Telecaster, use a Telecaster.’ ”
Queen branched out in many different directions during the Eighties, becoming involved in film projects like Flash Gordon and the colorized rerelease of director Fritz Lang’s 1926 silent classic Metropolis. Mercury, May, Deacon and Taylor all undertook solo albums and side projects such as May’s Star Fleet Project with Eddie Van Halen and Phil Chen. But one collaboration that fell within the Queen opus was the band’s memorable teaming with David Bowie for the hit single ‘Under Pressure,’ from 1982’s Hot Space.
“David was living in Switzerland, where we were recording in a studio we owned at the time [Mountain Studios] in Montreux,” May recalls. “He basically just popped in to see us. Freddie had met him before. We all had a little chat and then went straight in the studio and started playing around. We played a few old songs and then something new started to happen and we said, ‘Okay, let’s try and record this.’ It was a truly spontaneous thing. We felt our way through a backing track all together as an ensemble. And then David brought up an unusual idea for creating the vocal. He was kind of famous for writing lyrics by collecting different bits of paper with quotes on them. And we did a corresponding thing as regards writing the top line for the song. When the backing track was done, David said, ‘Okay, let’s each of us go in the vocal booth and sing how we think the melody should go— just off the tops of our heads— and we’ll compile a vocal out of that.’ And that’s what we did. Some of the original bits even made it onto the record. Freddie going ‘b-b-b-boom ba,’ that scat singing stuff, was part of the initial track he went in and did off the top of his head. Odd, isn’t it? That’s why the words are so curious—some of them, anyway. There was a point where somebody had to take control, and I think it’s fair to say that David took the reins and decided that he wanted to rationalize the lyrics and make them say what he felt they should say.”
With the success of “Radio Ga-Ga” in 1984, Roger Taylor became the fourth and final member of Queen to write a hit single for the band, although he’d been active and important as a songwriter all along, contributing such indispensable album tracks as “I’m in Love with My Car” and “Sheer Heart Attack.” With four highly capable songsmiths in the band, getting material onto a Queen album was never an easy matter.
“We fought like cats and dogs,” says May. “That’s the truth. We were like four painters all trying to get our brushes onto the picture and falling over each other really. It was a constant state of flux. There were times when all our ideas would really work together magically well, and you’d have a great day in the studio where everybody felt they’d contributed. And then there’d be days when everybody was pulling in opposite directions. That would be very painful. And oddly enough, Freddie— who everyone thinks was the great prima donna—was very often the person who would find the compromise. He was very good at mediating like that.”
Helping propel “Radio Ga- Ga” to the top of the charts was another landmark video. Veteran rock vid director David Mallet used computer imaging to insert the members of Queen into footage taken from the aforementioned film Metropolis. Back in 1984, such high-tech wizardry was very new to the public, as was the idea of rock videos that incorporate scenes from feature films. As with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen had anticipated a visual trend. On the whole, May considers Mallet to be the best of the many video directors with whom Queen collaborated.
“The ‘Ga-Ga’ thing was a triumph. The videos always came out better when the creative process started with all of us in a room at one time, hammering out the ideas. You need a lot of creative input at the beginning for the thing to become a good video. And you need someone like David who is technically beyond reproach, who can carry the ideas out and put his own creativity in.”
There is reason to believe that Queen would have made the transition from the Eighties to the Nineties just as easily as they’d segued from the Seventies into the Eighties. They were prevented from doing so by what turned out to be the first in a series of sad losses that the rock community suffered in the following decade. On November 24, 1991, Freddie Mercury died of AIDS-related bronchial pneumonia. Griefstricken but determined to move forward, the surviving members of Queen later went into the studio to complete the album they’d been working on at the time of Mercury’s death. This became Made in Heaven, the final studio album in the Queen opus.
“It was very difficult to do,” says May. “But we had promised Freddie we would finish up the tracks.”
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