Hot Space: Queen's Controversial Album
A seasoned Queen fan may see the article title and wonder, is “controversial” the right word for a disco-funk album produced by one of the most dominant stage presences of all time? The reader born in this century might wonder, “Queen? You mean the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ band?” Growing up as a kid in the 90s, I didn’t know Queen until “We Will Rock You” played as The Mighty Ducks faced off against scary Iceland.
Whatever your personal Queen experience, Freddie Mercury has been gone 30 years and discussions about Queen still permeate pop culture. That’s what makes Hot Space such a unique rock n’ roll learning experience. Hot Space nestles in a lost pocket of the 80s, released to commercial mediocrity two years after the success of “Another One Bites the Dust”, and three years before Queen would perform the greatest rock show of all time at Live Aid 1985.
One could make the argument that Hot Space isn’t important to the Queen canon of work, that it’s an anomaly, a creative misfire by a band that got sidetracked by Munich party nights and the intrusively toxic influence of Mercury’s manager, Paul Prenter. I get it, and I refute the argument. Queen always, from their inception, strived for experimentation. They wrote songs with insanely elaborate chord structures, turned a six-minute rock opera into their biggest single, and they scored an entire space odyssey film soundtrack for 1980’s Flash Gordon. Queen pushed boundaries and Hot Space was a natural progression into foreign sonic territory. In 1982, Queen tested the loyalty of their fans to do what any true artist wants to do: grow.
The 1982 Rolling Stone review by John Milward called the album, “at best, routinely competent, and, at times, downright offensive.” Fans were discouraged with the disco direction and Queen literally stopped touring America after the Hot Space tour in 1982. To me, the controversy isn’t that Queen made an album that off-put their fan base. The controversy is that they were criticized for trying something new. Roger Taylor told the Detroit Free Press in 1982 that, “We never tried to pander to what we feel people want. A lot of people want to hear rehashes of what they liked in the past, but that would be death for us.”
Artistic growth was oxygen for Queen. Let’s see where it took them on Hot Space.
Four seconds into the song, and a man who had spent the last 200 years in a cave would know this was produced in the 80s. The funky, rolling bass riff drives the beat and a horn section bounces along with Mercury’s energy. I’ll call it electro glitz. The horn arrangement was a first for any Queen song to this point in their nine-year career.
Eagerly awaiting an album that might resemble the hard rock chaos of “Brighton Rock”, a fan in 1982 puts the new vinyl on the record player and is greeted with the slapping, electronic sounds of a drum machine. Queen’s experimentation with eclectic sounds as a band extended to the individual level, as well. Freddie Mercury played the bass on “Staying Power” and Brian May played a bass synthesizer on “Dancer”.
“Back Chat” shows just how well Queen could perform any genre with electricity. A bubbling dance guitar line is the undercurrent for Mercury’s enthusiastic chanting of “Back chat/back chat/you burn all my energy”. Brian May cuts in with wailing guitar solos and you don’t have to close your eyes to imagine this as the soundtrack to sauntering into a club in 1982.
I highly recommend watching the official “Body Language” video on Youtube and see if it’s so far-fetched that the song was banned in some areas and removed from daytime MTV circulation. The erotic overtones also helped propel it to #11 on the Billboard 100. “Body Language” throws off the vibe of wearing full leather in an underground club while slinking through a steam bath. The music video captures exactly that.
“Action This Day”
Freddie Mercury may have carried the stage charisma of Queen, but the songwriting was shared, and each member brought nuances of their worldview to the songwriting process. “Back Chat” was written by John Deacon, “Body Language” by Freddie Mercury, and “Action This Day” by Roger Taylor. The driving, frenetic beat almost mirrors the beat of “Whip It’ by Devo, the new-wave hit released two years before Hot Space.
“Put Out the Fire”
Roger Taylor’s falsetto vocals are well-known as a core element of some of Queen’s biggest verses, including singing the operatic section of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. He alternates vocals with Mercury on “Put Out the Fire”, which returns to a traditional Queen rock riff and Freddie’s declarative, anthemic voice. If you asked someone which album included “Put Out the Fire”, Hot Space would be the last guess.
“Life Is Real (Song for Lennon)”
A tribute song to Lennon’s death in ’80, “Life Is Real” is an overlooked example of Mercury’s ability to craft a gorgeous ballad. It’s another track with traditional instrumentation, a background chorus sung by the whole band, and a beautiful sequence that starts as an electric guitar solo, evolves into an acoustic guitar solo, then soars off into a swelling synth strings section.
“Calling All Girls”
Hot Space gets such a heavy reputation as an experimental disco-funk deviation, and it’s easy to start questioning this label as “Calling All Girls” opens with an energetically strummed acoustic guitar. At the 1:50 mark, you get the, “Oh yeah, there’s the experimentation” moment, as they overlay the chorus with a series of record-scratching squelches.
“Las Palabras de Amor”
Queen already had a steady Latin-American fan base through the 70s, but it exploded with The Game tour in 1981. They were the first major rock act to tour South America and the tour was highlighted by their Rio de Janeiro show in front of 250,000 paying fans. “Las Palabras de Amor” can be interpreted as both inspired by and homage to their Latin-American fan base, and the chorus is sung in alternating English and Spanish.
“Cool Cat” is a calm, flowing vibe overtop a liquid-smooth bass line. It’s unique in that all the instruments are played by John Deacon except for Mercury on electric piano. The juicier fan tidbit is that David Bowie originally sang background vocals for the song. Bowie wasn’t pleased with the final product and asked that his vocals be removed from the album release.
What’s that, “Under Pressure” was released on Hot Space? Yes, that “Under Pressure”, the legendary spontaneous melding of improvisation between David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. Well, how the heck did Hot Space have such mediocre reviews?! That’s what you exclaim as you spit your drink all over the keyboard in exasperated surprise. “Under Pressure” was released ahead of Hot Space in October of ’81 and was already an established masterpiece leading into the release of Hot Space in May of ’82.
That’s it, Hot Space by Queen. Can I stand by my statement that it’s a controversial album? I’ll stand by it, but not for being an artistic failure. It’s controversial because it wasn’t recognized as an artistic success, an album by a band that never stopped pushing boundaries, exploring, without a care in the world for pleasing fans or critics.
Queen always did exactly what they wanted, and that’s part of why we love them. They embodied the freedom to be ambitiously authentic, to stay true, to grow.