In honor of a book that I wrote a few years ago and which has just (just meaning almost three months ago) been republished in the UK in an expanded and updated format, and which will be out in the US on March 13th (don’t worry, I’ll remind you all then), today I’m going to review Hot Space, Queen’s most critically savaged album of all time – and trust me, every one of their albums have been critically savaged, so that’s saying something. As with my review of News Of The World – the very first album review I wrote for this site, aw! – Hot Space holds a special place in my heart, as it was one of the first cassettes I was aware of when I asked my mom who Queen was. (That being said, it’s not exactly where I would start if you were to introduce someone to Queen.)
With the runaway successes of The Game and its two blockbuster singles, ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ and ‘Another One Bites The Dust’, all North American #1s, Queen’s reputation in the US was at an all-time high. The slight misstep of billing Flash Gordon as a proper Queen album instead of as a soundtrack album only did minor Stateside damage, but the rot began to show with the modest success of ‘Under Pressure’, which was a UK #1 but struggled to #29 in the US. Rejuvenated by the recording process of The Game, the band took ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ as their boilerplate and developed an entire album based on the funkier side of things. The problem is, Queen wasn’t a funk/disco band; they were primarily a rock band who dabbled in eccentricities from time to time.
Their biggest mistake was front-loading the album with the dance songs, instead of leading in the listener with something more traditionally Queen-sounding. ‘Staying Power’ is an abysmal song about lead vocalist Freddie Mercury’s, ahem, prowess, and while it would take on a new life in the live setting, on record it’s limp and flaccid, bogged down by drum machines, synthesizers, and “hot and spacey” (read: cheesy) horns from noted producer Arif Mardin. Things aren’t much better with Brian May’s ‘Dancer’, a livelier funk/rock amalgam that hints at the guitarist’s awkwardness with his band’s experimentation:
I’m not invited to the party
Been sitting here all night
I’m all alone at the party
I don’t feel all right
Unfortunately for May, his song too is mired in synthesizers and drum machines, whereas his earlier funk/rock song, ‘Dragon Attack’, featured a blistering live drum performance from Roger Taylor. (At least his homemade guitar makes a few appearances, delivering several scorching solos that were lacking from many of the other songs.) ‘Back Chat’ is John Deacon’s attempt to rewrite ‘Another One Bites The Dust’, and it’s the best track on the album of the funk/disco variety, but it’s not necessarily the bassist’s best work. Written about a fiery argument between two unnamed parties, the song features a lively vocal performance from Mercury and a screamer of a guitar solo, but those damned synths and drum machines…!
It’s on ‘Body Language’ where the band hit not only the nadir of the album, but of their entire catalog. Penned – and, apart from some guitar at the end, almost entirely performed – by Mercury and once again extolling his qualities in the sack, ‘Body Language’ isn’t just Queen’s worst song ever, it’s also their most offensive. As Mercury moans and groans about his mate’s long legs and great thighs, the listener is left cringing in embarrassment – and it matters not whether Mercury was singing this about a man or a woman; there’s none of the tongue-in-cheek playfulness of ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ or the over-the-top carnal longing of ‘Get Down, Make Love’. All Mercury wants is sex, and by God, he’s going to get it, whether he can control himself or not.
Having hit rock bottom, Hot Space gets far, far better, with Taylor’s funky, New Wave-ish ‘Action This Day’ leaving a far better taste in the mouth. It’s here that the dance overtones wash away, and they blend a little more successfully with Queen’s pompous pop sensibilities. May’s ‘Put Out The Fire’, meanwhile, brings the band firmly back to their rock roots, but, as with most socio-political message songs the band occasionally dabbled in, the moral of the story – guns are bad, okay? – is ham-handed and a little embarrassing – especially with the line, “Y’know a gun never killed nobody/You can ask anyone/People get shot by people/People – with – guns!” You don’t say.
‘Life Is Real (Song For Lennon)’, written as a tribute to the slain former Beatle, is a well-intentioned nod to Lennon’s oblique lyrical imagery (specifically structured like ‘Mother’ or ‘Mind Games’), but Mercury stumbles and falters; at least the piano-based backing is lovely, with a tender acoustic guitar solo from May. The album’s strongest songs follow, with Taylor’s ‘Calling All Girls’, a lively New Wave rocker preaching peace and love in a turbulent world, and May’s ‘Las Palabras De Amor (The Words Of Love)’, a gorgeous power ballad sung partly in Spanish and inspired by the band’s 1981 tour of South America. The dreaded synthesizer makes a return here, but instead of whooping and blasting needlessly, it twirls and sparkles, adding a poignant and human touch that had been lacking on the other songs.
The album’s penultimate song is ‘Cool Cat’, a refreshing chaser to its heavier predecessor, and was written – and performed entirely – by Mercury and Deacon. The former slips into a decadent falsetto while the latter lays down a funky groove on bass, then overdubs some cracking Telecaster guitar. (Either one of them could have pressed “play” on the drum machine.) While I give the first half of Hot Space a lot of grief for being bloated and misguided in its funk/disco attempts, ‘Cool Cat’ is a lovely, lovely track. If only the rest of the album could have been this good.
The six month old ‘Under Pressure’ is tacked on as the album closer, presumably to attract more sales, and while it’s a classic collaboration with David Bowie, it sits a bit at odds with the rest of the album. It’s nice to have ‘Under Pressure’ on an album, despite its calculated attempt at name recognition, but one can’t help but wonder if maybe there was something a bit more appropriate that could have taken its place. (The argument to that, of course, is that if ‘Body Language’ and ‘Staying Power’ were the best of what the band could offer, then imagine what didn’t make the cut.)
All told, Hot Space was a transitional album for Queen, and, for the first time in years, they found themselves having to work hard at reassuring fans that they hadn’t lost their edge. Disco was a dirty word by 1982, but by the following year, Michael Jackson made it cool again with Thriller. (Not that four white British guys were going to ever make funk or disco cool.) So Hot Space was a victim of poor timing; if it had been released in 1978 or 1979, it might have been a bit more successful. As it is, Hot Space was a watershed album for the band: with all of the energy they expended in experimenting with new sounds and technology, their efforts were rewarded with poor sales and terrible reviews. As a result, the band were scared straight, and their follow-up, The Works, was a Queen-loaf: all the best bits of what makes Queen Queen, without sticking their necks on the line. It worked, but the willingness to try new things was gone, and the band floated throughout the rest of the 1980s in a fog of smash pop singles and weak albums. Hot Space, despite its flaws, at least saw the band trying something new and unexpected – and, for that reason alone, it remains to me Queen’s last great album for nearly a decade.
Essential listening: Back Chat, Action This Day, Calling All Girls, Las Palabras De Amor (The Words Of Love), Cool Cat, Under Pressure