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In Defence Of...

Don't Talk! In Defence Of Queen's Hot Space
Daniel Ross , May 25th, 2012 11:26

The fans hated it, Roger Taylor and Brian May loathed it, even John Deacon and Freddie Mercury thought it was a mistake. However, says Dan Ross, don't write off Hot Space just like that...

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The first two minutes of this grainy interview with Queen from 1984 is, in terms of their material, a devastating listen. Hearing them talk so resignedly about the one album in their considerable canon that saw them follow up on a whim, pursue a microbe of thought through to maturity, it's no wonder that people thought Hot Space was a dud.

"We almost spent too much time on it..."

"A whole album of that isn't really what people want from us..."

Taylor and May sound like they'd recorded the most depressing album of their career. John Deacon, arguably a driving force behind it thanks to his time hanging out in the studio with Chic, has little to say. But the worst comes from Freddie Mercury. Did the negative reaction to Hot Space affect their approach to the album that followed it, The Works? "It made us play a little bit safer." If there's one thing you never, ever want to hear Freddie Mercury talking about, it's playing safe.

And safe it certainly isn’t. Hot Space takes all the things that Queen were known for and either removes them or treats them to ridiculous subversions. So that means drum machines instead of booming tom-toms, ludicrous brass arrangements instead of opulent guitar histrionics and, more than ever before, an obsession with sex. You know, rather than ogres and dragons and flouncing about.

Experiments litter the choppy pace of the album, each an insightful clue as to what the hell they were thinking when they recorded it. By this point, remember, the band had already become a touring beast of legendarily debauched repute. Steaming pyrotechnics, dwarves covered in cold meats and an encyclopaedic appetite for drugs were the order of the day, and if little Deacy was going to start pissing about with disco songs then it was about time a huffy May and Taylor delivered some stadium bangers to keep the live show normal. May even recorded the guitar solo for ‘Put Out The Fire’ completely pissed and, by the sounds of it, in a total grump.

The conflict between this and the experimentation absolutely topple Hot Space into a different realm, sort-of like a middle ground between the kitchen (where Roger Taylor is dressed as a woman and flipping pancakes) and the bedroom (where Freddie Mercury is dressed as a woman and sitting next to the bed on an industrial tub of cooking oil). It’s uneasy, but beautifully entertaining.

‘Staying Power’, the album’s opening track, has a disgusting (in a good way) chorus of horns running all the way through it like a jalapeno stick of rock, arranged by Arif Mardin (who did the same for Chaka Khan among others). It’s just stupid, all high-register showing-off and sharp-tongued staccato. But somewhere inside all the bombast is a gruff roar from Freddie Mercury that, despite the song’s afro-funk energy, is as ‘rock’ as anything they recorded before. Mercury soars throughout the song and, indeed, the whole album, uninterested in how silly it might sound. Actually, ‘uninterested’ isn’t quite strong enough – ‘positively disengaged with any notion of musical propriety’ might be better. ‘Back Chat’, on the other hand, is a ruthlessly catchy and polite little exercise. John Deacon switches to guitar (Brian May appears to have wandered out of the studio at this point to stare at the sky) and so the histrionics are non-existent. This is Queen if they’d been born ten years later and had sampled The Average White Band. The idea of bands paring themselves down to their constituent parts is nothing new, but with a band quite so extrovert as Queen it’s wonderful to hear a huge struggle to contain themselves. Even Mercury’s bizarre enunciation of the final ‘t’ of ‘Back Chat’ speaks volumes about an imagined restraint, a cool attempt to be proper instead of gauche. And when Brian May finally does wander back in to do a guitar solo, it’s an angry, trebly squeal instead of the mentally harmonised, full-bodied fare we’re used to.

Queen’s famous ‘and no-one played the synthesiser’ disclaimers were, by now, a thing of the past. So it’s no surprise to hear synth bass lines all over ‘Body Language’ and the occasional boop-boops of a Deacon noise experiment on ‘Back Chat’. Similarly, let’s also not forget that Mercury’s lyrics were famous for being batshit at the best of times, and “Breastfeeding myself, I swallowed the bitter pill,” from ‘Life Is Real (Song For Lennon)' is plenty to be getting on with. Tantalisingly, David Bowie recorded a rap section (or, more accurately, a mumble section) for the strangely louche funk-reggae number ‘Cool Cat’, but requested it be removed having thought better of it – fortunately it’s fairly available on YouTube and reissues. It’s not that bad.

And all this is before you’ve gotten anywhere near ‘Under Pressure’. Speaking of which, a discussion of Hot Space couldn’t really be complete without a mention of one of the greatest singles of the '80s. And that’s it. There’s your mention. Despite its stature, it’s the least important song on the whole record, purely because everyone knows it already.

Most confusingly, the album has been labelled by band and fans alike a colossal disco mistake, a mulch of murky funk failures and half-songs. In fact, there are just as many bonehead rock songs and drippy ballads (from May and Taylor) as there are sleek dance numbers (from Mercury and Deacon). The wedge in the band between these two stylistic camps is the real reason for that divide in sound. Where the traditionalists opted for the safety of what went before, Mercury and cuddly John Deacon romped bollock-naked in a den of sexual imagery and leathery, sparse instrumentation.

All the subversions and confusions make Hot Space a contender for the most Queen-like Queen album – contrary, silly but delivered with absolute conviction. But even the band appeared to abandon it. Fans still debate on numerous Queen forums why Hot Space is, in their eyes, a total crud-flake. The arguments range from a desire to get played on ‘black’ radio stations to the supposedly dubious direction of Mercury’s personal manager, Paul Prenter, but weren’t these things always going on? ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ fluked them to the top of the charts a couple of years earlier and found them a new audience, so what was the problem with trying a few things out on the album that followed it? Divided, they fell.

Hot Space is an essential cog for Queen completists. If you’re going to love Queen, then you need to love Hot Space too, and everything that it entails. Or, at the very least, you need to learn to see the many positives. The trouble is, everyone thinks it’s an impossible album to love. Far be it from this piece to tell what you should or shouldn’t love, but it’s really not that tricky – Hot Space arranges all of Queen’s strongest whims and eccentricities, but they’ve become removed from a sympathetic context. Angry band members, stylistic confusion and tour fatigue combined with a manager who supposedly indulged Mercury’s every creative whim was never going to create a balanced work, but unlike other bands’ bad albums, Hot Space has invention and ideas to spare. So get hip, relax! Hot Space sounds nothing like Queen think it does.

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Post-Punk Monk
May 25, 2012 4:25pm

This is fascinating to read this even though I can't stand Queen [never could]. I say that because I am one of a handful who was genuinely wowed when finally hearing the similarly reviled "urban" Duran Duran album "Red Carpet Massacre." I had heard most of the DD albums up to it [this includes some of the worst albums ever recorded] but every Duran Duran fan I knew warned me off of this one; and I know a lot of Duran Duran fans [of every possible stripe]. When I finally heard it many years later, it completely won me over in a way that made most of my friends doubt my sanity. So I know the feeling of standing alone in the wilderness championing bold, risk-taking work, as society [and even the band who recorded it] proclaims an album a grave mistake.

Maybe I should give this Queen album a listen?! If it's low on heavily chorused, Brian May solos with too much sustain abuse, it could go a long way to addressing my qualms with the band. Queen are perhaps the only group I've not liked because of guitar tone.

http://postpunkmonk.wordpress.com
For more ruminations on the Fresh New Sound Of Yesterday

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mav
May 25, 2012 7:18pm

Not Queen's finest moment but far better than the pompous critics let on. Under Pressure is magnificent. And Life Is Real, Backchat, Action This Day and Cool Cat are all very catchy songs. Queen at their worst moment is still far better than most bands' best days.

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L. Hayward
May 25, 2012 8:39pm

Congrats Quietus, Hot Space & Macca's Ram featured on the very same day, cutting edge or what?

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Robyn Ebbels
May 26, 2012 2:43am

I just love it all,it does not matter what Queen play you always get variety,long live queen.

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Ace
May 26, 2012 6:12am

Only Queen could have made an album like Hot Space. From Ogre battles, to Bohemian Rhapsody to Musthapha to One Vision to My life has been saved. No one has ever carried it all so cool! Nobody else has had that much talent to cover this much and convincingly!! (and I doubt if any one ever will, unless Freiddie is reborn and takes it further)

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John Doran
May 26, 2012 8:57am

In reply to L. Hayward:

Stop griping. Also on the home page today: Laurel Halo, Swans, Wolfgang Voigt, Grimes, JK Flesh, Squarepusher...

Into every life a little rain must fall. Man up and get your umbrella out.

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SY
May 29, 2012 9:19am

In reply to L. Hayward:

L. Hayward? Is that THE Lawrence Hayward?

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Simon Fay
Jun 15, 2012 3:24pm

I keep meaning to score a copy of this, given its reputation and the bits I've heard leaking from the windows of gay brothels.

IIRC Freddie used to do 'Staying Power' as 'Fucking Power' on stage ("You and me we got...fucking pow-er!!").

Delightful.

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Jimmy Carr
Jul 6, 2012 9:48am

These 4 are my friends, my family, my teachers, my music gods! A huge part of my music education and life understand is thank to them. They match my heart beat, they play my soul strings. All their albums are my favorite, different and unique.
They are the best!

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Nic
Dec 9, 2012 1:59am

30 years later and we are still talking about Hot Space. Personally, It's one of my favourite Queen albums. Despite the overtones, Staying Power is a great song. Back Chat great, and body language, uncomfortable in its less than subtle subtext. What was Freddie listening to in the early 80's as he cruised New York's gay bars?

Queen have always done funk, from 'fun it' to the catchy 'dragon attack'. When the album came out, it wasn't the fact that they had gone funky that was the problem, it was more the degree of departure. I dont think the album was a failure at all, disjointed yes and certainly better than albums like 'the miracle' which ironically, whilst a bigger seller has become more obscure in comparison to the passion that Hot Space evokes. A case in point to all the nay sayers with regards Hot Space is the abysmal 'Delilah' on 'Innuendo'. Miaowing, literally, about a peeing cat, is a much better example of Queen's lowest point.

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stuart
Oct 5, 2013 1:05pm

i have all albums from queen and rare stuff etc and i love hot space i think freds vocals are great on it and johns bass is amazing, as a queen fan it doesnt matter what style they played they always played it great :) end of ;)

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Sebastian
Oct 6, 2013 1:31pm

Actually, Brian didn't loathe it - he went as far as to say that without it there'd have been no 'Thriller'. It wasn't his favourite album, but he didn't hate it.

John, on the other hand, did publicly slam it (when they went to Japan that year he admitted he didn't like the album) and when asked about the band's best and worst moment (interviewed in Germany in '86 IIRC) he said 'Hot Space' had been the worst. Ciontrary to what a lot of people believe, John wasn't a driving force behind that album. In fact, his bass is missing on several tracks (where the bass-line was played by whoever'd written the song, using a synth) and 86.36% of the album was NOT written by him. Freddie admitted it'd been his (Freddie's) idea and he'd forced the other three to do it.

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Jason
Sep 19, 2014 5:36am

"Angry band members, stylistic confusion and tour fatigue combined ... was never going to create a balanced work".

I don't know that those three elements are responsible for 'Hot Space's lack of appeal. It's almost certain that the same elements were present during the making of their universally loved albums (e.g. 'Sheer Heart Attack', 'A Night At The Opera', 'A Day At The Races').

To me, the problem was the compositions: they were simply poor by Queen's standards.

They'd done funk before ('Bites The Dust') and succeeded. The difference? It was a great composition.

They'd also made stylistically diverse albums before (with vaudeville, soul, epics, pop, ballads, metal, opera, ambient etc) and succeeded. The difference? Again, the quality of the compositions.

I feel that Queen's fans were, by 1982, quite used to the band's penchant for diversity. So the album would've been better loved if the songs themselves were better crafted.

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neil
Nov 19, 2014 11:55pm

When I first bought hot space album back in 1982 I was 19 year old,I wasn't a fan of disco music I always love rock music and rock n roll, I always love queen hard rock music,but when I first heard hot space I couldn't believe what I was hearing lol,Queen doing funky disco no way I said to myself, I give it a more listen to the whole album and I said Queen can play any music from heavy metal to disco music you name it rock n roll, when I heard staying power live at Milton Keynes 1982 singing by the great legendary Freddie mercury R.I.P he blow me away

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Keira
Feb 28, 2017 1:19pm

Love Queen , love Hot Space !
Everyone i knew hated it , but i thought it was typical queen at the time !
Eclectic, broad and without shame ! There are some great somgs
Mixed in with the get down disco stuff !
As for played it safe after , well i dont think the miracle or
Inuenndo were particularly safe albums ?
I miss them as a creative force , they were possibly
The best thing to come out of great britain in the 70s.

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