How Queen Weathered The Sex Pistols & Punk With News Of The World

David Chiu looks back at one of the music inudstry's most repeated stories and ask what it tells us about how rock music coped with the arrival of punk

It was a moment in British music history that perhaps symbolized the apparent divide between the rock establishment and the upstart punk movement. (What Elton John’s manager John Reid once described as, “Anarchy on one side, and monarchy on the other.”) It was the “confrontation” between Queen’s flamboyant frontman Freddie Mercury and the Sex Pistols’ urchin bassist Sid Vicious in 1977—two men with a flair for drama who later met untimely ends. While the details have slightly varied over the years in the subsequent retellings of this incident, the basic premise was that Queen and the Sex Pistols were simultaneously working on their respective albums, News Of The World and Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, at Wessex Sound Studios in north London. In his 2011 book Queen Unseen, Peter Hince, Queen’s former longtime roadie, recalled what happened:

“One afternoon when Queen were working in the control room, Sid Vicious stumbled in, the worse for wear, and addressed Fred: ‘Have you succeeded in bringing ballet to the masses yet?’ (A reference to a quote Fred had made in the music press.)

“Fred casually got up, walked over to him and quipped: ‘Aren’t you Stanley Ferocious or something?’, took him by the collar and threw him out. So much for the mean edge of punk.”

In an interview, perhaps sometime in the 80s, Mercury himself recalled the encounter with Vicious: “I called him Simon Ferocious or something, and he didn’t like it at all. I said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ He was very well marked. I said, ‘Make sure you scratch yourself in the mirror properly today, and tomorrow you’re going to get something else.’ He hated the fact that I could even speak like that. I think we survived that test.”

Mercury was proven right. By 1978, Queen remained one of popular bands from the establishment, while the Sex Pistols imploded following a disastrous U.S. tour. Certainly it helped during that transitional period in music that Queen recorded a straightforward and somewhat punk-influenced record in News Of The World. Released exactly 40 years ago this month, the album is best known containing the ubiquitous anthems ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘We Are The Champions’. (A new and lavish deluxe reissue of News of the World, featuring alternative versions of the album’s songs and accompanied by a DVD documentary, is due out in November to mark the record’s 40th anniversary.)

The story about Mercury and Vicious’ encounter has become a mainstay in books and articles about Queen’s career, to show that the heavy rock band weren’t intimidated or unsettled by the Pistols and punk. On the flip-side, the episode has been absent in the narratives about the Sex Pistols, including the recent memoirs by John Lydon (Anger Is An Energy) and Steve Jones (Lonely Boy). This much-touted incident seems to imply an animosity not only between Queen and the Pistols, but also between the rock establishment and punk. The common perception was that bands like Queen and others from the pre-punk era were caught unaware when punk arrived; Pete Townshend wrote in his memoir Who I Am: “Punk rock was the tsunami that threatened to drown us all in 1977.”

But punk didn’t completely vanquish the old guard; groups like Led Zeppelin, the Who, Genesis and Pink Floyd were still immensely popular by the early 1980s. A few unique acts like David Bowie and Roxy Music were able to straddle the line between being from the establishment and serving as an influence to the punk groups. And in the early part of their careers, the members of the Police masked their previous progressive/jazz rock chops and created music that (just about) passed for punk.

In fact, recent stories seem to overstate the supposed venom between the two sides–not only were the members of those legacy bands conscious of punk, but even respected and liked it. In addition to Townsend, other veteran rockers embraced the movement to varying degrees: Peter Gabriel recalled seeing the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club and having a preference for the Clash; Phil Collins once said that punk influenced Genesis to scale back on the extended numbers for a more streamlined sound; and Jimmy Page called the Sex Pistols’ music “superb.” In talking about the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, Keith Richards admitted that punk “moved our ass, boy.” In turn, members of punk and post punk bands like the Clash, Echo And The Bunnymen, Wire, and Bad Religion had sung the praises of classic and prog rock bands (Joey Ramone reportedly had a copy of Yes’ Close To The Edge in his record collection). Even John Lydon, who as Johnny Rotten famously wore a ‘I hate Pink Floyd’ shirt, told tQ in 2010 that one had to be daft to not like Pink Floyd: “They’ve done great stuff. They’ve done rubbish too. Dark Side Of The Moon I love. But I go right back to when they were with Syd Barrett… I’ve met members of the band and I get on alright with them because they’re not [pretentiousness] at all. There was kind of a misreading and a misrepresentation in the press and they’re not holier than thou. In fact they are just like thee and thou.”

Queen, too, was not oblivious to punk and also engaged with it, especially the band’s drummer Roger Taylor. “It gave us a kick up the ass. It was so angry, so different, so outrageous,” he told Rolling Stone in 1981. “I mean, the first time I ever saw John Rotten, I was really shocked, ’cause I had never actually seen the whole thing in person. He sort of crystallized the whole punk attitude, and there’s no doubt about it, the guy had amazing charisma.” Years later, Brian May told me during a recent interview for Ultimate Classic Rock: “I think Freddie, John and I were very much in our own world, but Roger was very aware of what was going on around [with punk].”

At face value, Queen and the Sex Pistols seemed so different from each other in terms of the musical styles as well as appearances. But they are forever linked in music history, and not just because of the incident at Wessex. It goes back to December 1976, when Queen pulled out of an appearance on Bill Grundy’s Today show because Mercury had a dental appointment, his first one in 15 years. Instead EMI’s rep suggested bringing in one of the label’s recent signees, the Sex Pistols to appear on the show—a very fateful decision that changed the Pistols’ fortunes forever. “It’s funny, we’ve been connected to Queen in so many ways,” Lydon said for a 2002 Classic Albums documentary on Never Mind The Bollocks. "It was them who canceled the interview and that’s how we ended up with it. It was no great masterplan on our part. It was no publicity stunt. It was a spur-of-the-moment-that day thing.”

The groups also shared similarities, according to author Mark Blake in his Queen book, Is This The Real Life? “Johnny Rotten, like Freddie Mercury, was a self-made creation,” he wrote. “Both Lydon and Bulsara [Mercury’s actual surname] appeared to be fundamentally shy boys who had acquired a larger-than-life persona to mask all sorts of insecurities.” The fact that Rotten [who had previously seen Queen in concert] had wanted to meet Mercury while both groups were recording at Wessex indicated a genuine respect. “I said, ‘Oh Johnny,’ that’s not a good idea,” Bill Price, who engineered Never Mind The Bollocks, recalled in the Classic Albums documentary. “Sometime later Johnny came back and said, ‘I’ve been to see Freddie.’ I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ And as he said it, there was a tap on the door, Queen’s producer said, ‘Freddie was playing piano. One of the band members just crawled on all fours across our studio up to the side of the piano, said, ‘Hello Freddie,’ and left on all fours. Could you make sure he doesn’t do it again?’”

It’s universally agreed that Queen wasn’t technically a punk band. But if punk was all about challenging the status quo, then an argument could be made that Queen was punk because of their arrogant, pompous, and camp image. In his essay for the Guardian, Creations Records founder Alan McGee went so far as to call Mercury a “king of punk rock”: “This was rock as theatrics and larger than life. Mercury was so camp he made the ’60s Batman show look like a gritty and realistic take on crime. His outrageous stage antics were punk rock. If punk rock was about the politics of boredom – and never being boring – Queen win. They crafted the act of entertainment as an almost political weapon.”

There are no denying that several songs on News Of The World borrowed aspects of punk, so it is natural to assume that the band was jumping on the bandwagon. But Queen had already recorded songs that hinted at DIY aggression. On the band’s 1973 self-titled debut, Roger Taylor’s ‘Modern Times Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ironically a tongue-in-cheek commentary about rock and roll trends, was a nearly two-minute aggressive blast of proto-punk. Other earlier Queen songs like ‘Ogre Battle’ (from 1974’s Queen II) and ‘Stone Cold Crazy’ (from 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack), blended both punk and metal elements that foreshadowed thrash.

For News Of The World, the band mostly dispensed with the elaborate and painstakingly produced multilayered and multi-tracked production of their previous two albums, A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races, resulting in a work that had swagger and attitude. Even the striking album cover art by Frank Kelly Freas of a robot crushing the Queen members was an apt statement of the band’s intent to shake things up. “I thought when we went into News Of The World, we couldn’t reinvent ourselves as a punk band, but we wanted it a little bit more simple,” said Taylor in the Queen documentary Days Of Our Lives. “Of course, we thought these really grandiose things weren’t really quite what was happening then. To be more of the time, I guess we made a more straightforward record.”

“We’d already made a decision that…[after] A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races, we wanted to go back to basics for News Of The World,” May told me. “But it was very timely because the world was looking at punk and things being very stripped down. So in a sense we were conscious, but it was part of our evolution anyway.”

On the album. the song ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ (which didn’t appear on the 1974 Queen album of the same name), written by Taylor, had a hammering ferocity that could go toe to toe with any of the tracks on Never Mind The Bollocks; its lyrics of teen angst and boredom perhaps was a riposte at punk (“I feel so inarticulate”). In his review of News Of The World in February 1978, Rolling Stone‘s Bart Testa wrote: “’Sheer Heart Attack’ makes Queen the first major band to attempt a demonstration of superiority over punk rock by marching onto its stylistic turf. It works, too, because the power trio behind vocalist Freddie Mercury is truly primitive.”

“He had this track, which I know he already had in his mind for a while,” May said about Taylor’s ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ song. “And Roger was adamant that it should be on the album because [punk] was happening around us and we should be conscious of it.”

There are some other punk elements on News of the World: the slow tempo, march-like grind of ‘Fight From The Inside’, also written by Taylor, with its nihilist and cynical lyrics: “You’re just another picture on a teenage wall/You’re just another sucker ready for a fall.” While Mercury was more known for crafting grandiose pop music, his ‘Get Down Make Love’ showcased a raw and raunchier side of his songwriting —there’s no doubt what that song’s subject matter was about (Nine Inch Nails would later cover the song). And the last 37 seconds of the album’s penultimate track, ‘It’s Late’, May’s angst-ridden composition about a love triangle, is pure head-banging bliss.

But those deep album tracks dwarf in comparison to the smash hits of ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘We Are The Champions’. The former song has a direct, in your face minimalist sound that reflect DIY punk sensibilities: there are no drums, bass and other embellishments aside from May’s rip roaring guitar solo at the end, but just the foot stomps on floorboards and hand claps that were multi-tracked to create that big sound of a rally. According to May in the 2011 Queen documentary Days Of Our Lives, the inspiration for that track came from a show the band did at Bingley Hall where the crowd was singing along and didn’t stop. “I’ve gone to sleep thinking, ‘What could our audience do? What could you ask them to do? They’re all crammed in there, they can’t do much. They can stamp their feet, they can clap their hands, and they can sing.’ So I woke up with ‘We Will Rock You’ in my head. We went into Wessex with these ideas and that’s what happened.”

Meanwhile, Mercury’s dramatic over-the-top ballad, ‘We Are the Champions’, perfectly complemented May’s minimalist rocker. Only Queen could somehow get away with recording a song that was elitist—again a very punk rock move–especially with a lyric like “No time for losers” — the antithesis of rock & roll’s democratising quality (“’We Are the Champions’ was the most egotistical and arrogant song I’ve ever written,” Mercury was quoted as saying). During an In The Studio interview, May expressed his initial reservations about the song in terms of its grand proclamations. “I think years later [Freddie and I] talked about it and he said to me, ‘Rock & roll is the only place where everybody has a feeling of being in a team but you’re not fighting anybody. If you’re at a game, you have two sides who are singing their songs and feeling very much part of a team, but they want to kill the other side. The difference at a rock concert is everybody’s on the same team.”

Not surprisingly, News Of The World was a hit record, continuing Queen’s winning streak on the charts. In his somewhat complimentary Rolling Stone review at the time, Bart Testa wrote: “Most of the songs on News Of The World either challenges Queen’s artistic enemies or endeavor to establish a version of the new order. Late sons of the Empire though the may be, Queen has nothing to fear or to do. In their moneyed superiority, they are indeed champions.” Years later, Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash offered his enthusiasm of the record, singling out two of the punk-driven songs: “When they dug in to do something mean or hard, they could do it better than anybody. News Of The World has ‘Fight From The Inside’, one of my favorite Queen songs, and also the brilliant ‘Get Down Make Love’. This is just my favorite end-to-end Queen record."

There is an irony about the legacies of Never Mind The Bollocks and News Of The World. Bollocks topped the album charts in the U.K., certainly helped by the hype surrounding the Pistols at the time, but it bombed in America; now it’s regarded as a classic and influential record that regularly appears on all-time greatest albums polls. News Of The World, on the other hand, did well commercially on both sides of the Atlantic, but it’s not often talked about now on the same level as, say, A Night At The Opera. “I don’t know why this isn’t regarded as real classic – one of Queen’s best albums,” Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins told Classic Rock. “For me it certainly is. But perhaps we’ve gotten so used to ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘We Are The Champions’ that we take them for granted, and therefore we also take the album for granted.”

Meanwhile, in what might be the perfect bookend to the Mercury-Vicious (and perhaps punk vs. rock establishment) saga/debate happened this past summer, when May appeared on ex-Pistol Steve Jones’ own radio show, Jonesy’s Jukebox, in Los Angeles. The two guitar heroes not only reminisced about being at Wessex Studios together 40 years ago, but also talked about a variety of topic such as ageing, veganism, life in the universe, and animal rights. On the program May offered high praise for Never Mind The Bollocks: “You made an album which changed the world,” he told Jones, “and I think we did as well [with News Of The World]. To me Never Mind The Bollocks is a great album. Pure music, apart from all the social arguments. It’s a great album, a great rock album, and the sounds are great, the production’s great, the songs are great.”

One would be hard pressed to find any lingering animosity or grudges during that cordial conversation between May and Jones from what happened between their former bandmates 40 years ago. But then again, people love a good drama, and the Mercury-Vicious confrontation had it all. There’s something resonant about these two opposite larger-than-life characters going at it. Even as the memories of that incident has faded or been embellished over time, had it turned out that Mercury and Vicious were palling around in the studio and sharing a pint at the pub, it might have not been so interesting. What really matters, despite their similarities and differences, is that both groups punched their ticket to immortality, with Queen achieving greater heights of fame into the 80s and beyond. “The whole punk thing was a tough phase for us,” Mercury once said, “and I thought that was going to be it, but if there is a challenge we embark on it and that’s what keeps us going.”

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