Hot Space — Dare I say A Lost Classic

Queen had a fabulous year in 1980.

In terms of accomplishments they scored two U.S number one singles with Another One Bites the Dust and Crazy Little Thing Called Love and a number one album in the U.S with The Game. Dust reached 7 in the UK and Crazy was a UK number 2.

Anyone looking at those stats and seeing the fantastic reception to The Game and the accompanying gigs could be forgiven for thinking that Queen were unstoppable, and would be for a while at least. After all they were, for that brief period, the biggest band on the planet.

In the same year (80) they turned out, what in my opinion is a vastly understated soundtrack with Flash Gordon. More of that in a future article.

Under Pressure, a fantastic collaboration with David Bowie came in 81 and was a number one smash. The momentum The Game had galvanized seemed to be rolling onward towards maybe even greater things.

Then it happened. Hot Space!

The hostility from some of the fanbase at the time was almost ridiculous.

Although it might come as a surprise today, the press at the time did show some positivity.

John Milward, writing in Rolling Stone magazine back in 1982 was at times enthusing with quotes like — “Back Chat is a hot rock-funk tune, with guitar tracks as slick as an icy dance floor. An elastic beat puts some spring into a fine rocker, Calling All Girls.”

Then in the same article stated, “The rest of Hot Space is, at best, routinely competent and, at times, downright offensive. ‘Give me your body — Don’t talk,’ sings Mercury in ‘Body Language,’ a piece of funk that isn’t fun. For unsurpassed solipsism, however, he (Mercury) offers ‘Life Is Real (Song for Lennon)’: ‘Torsos in my closet/Shadows from my past/Life is real.’ As Mercury slips into a breathless, Plastic Ono-sounding ‘real,’ one is grateful that soul is still something money can’t buy.”

Other big music papers of the time were more positive in judgement.

Record Mirror said — “New styles and a whole new sense of values. You’ll love Hot Space, eventually.”

Sounds managed to praise Queen and slate them in one fell swoop. The review stated — “Queen have never made particularly blinding albums, but you’ll have to agree that Hot Space shows more imagination than tripe like Jazz.”

The NME (New Musical Express) were famous at the time for disliking everything Queen. So, the NME went against type when it stated — “The production of the whole album is really a peach.”

As I mentioned before fan attitudes at the time were decidedly mixed. Most were confused as to why a hard rock band would veer in a more dance oriented direction.

Indeed a friend of mine went so far as to denounce them and duly took his Queen collection to the secondhand store.That’s how strongly some fans felt.

Others, myself included, couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.

Today I often think back to the famous Freddie Mercury quote from the excellent Milton Keynes concert in 1982, “It’s only a bloody record. People get so excited about these things.”

Freddie Mercury was right of course, and it was almost as if the fans didn’t want to give Queen the license to change. Which in hindsight is a strange attitude. The Game, not long before had rockabilly, funk, Beatlesque pop and synths for the first time etc — and that same year we had the synth heavy Flash Gordon soundtrack that carried on the long tradition of change.

Hadn’t Queen already done opera, vaudeville, heavy rock, piano ballads, anthems, punk albeit for one song, and near 8 minute epics etc?

Of course they had so why should it have been a surprise to go the way Hot Space went — especially after the phenomenal success of Another One Bites The Dust — and I know, I know, some people might genuinely not like the album, members of the band included — but I can’t help think that opinion has been colored somewhat by the backlash it received at the time.

It’s almost become the norm to denounce it as ‘that dismal dance rubbish’ that Queen produced in the 80's.

I played Put Out The Fire for a friend a few months back. “Wow,” he said, “never heard this, it’s great — what a solo?”

All the years he’d slated Hot Space, he’d never listened to the damn thing. He’d been swayed by the opinion of others.

Hot Space was, by all accounts a difficult album to bring to fruition — Brian May told Uncut Magazine in 2005, “We moved to Munich to isolate ourselves from normal life so we could focus on the music — and we all ended up in a place that was rather unhealthy. A difficult period. We weren’t getting along together. We all had different agendas. It was a difficult time for me personally — some dark moments.”

These comments from Brian May might go some way to explaining certain members attitudes to the album, aside from it getting a roasting from fans and critics.

Brian May also said about this time in a 1984 interview with Faces Magazine — “We’re always pushing four different directions, not quite sure where the equilibrium position is, for balance.We fought about arriving at a sensible format for Hot Space, then decided to push into a very rhythmic and sparse area, disciplining out all the indulgences we’ve been used to putting in. We felt our fans would take it as another experiment. But we found we’d stepped out — at last — from the music people felt they could expect from us.”

Munich as an environment certainly had an impact on the recording.” May told Mojo magazine in 1988 — “Emotionally we all got into trouble there — hey let’s have a drink after the studio. It was nice to start with. We’d go out after the studio and then we weren’t getting back until eight in the morning. So you don’t get much work done the next day — and then it’s time to go out drinking again.”

One of those drunken nights clubbing did produce, what I think is a fine solo on the aforementioned Put Out the Fire. Not all bad then.

Maybe this particular solo was a way for Brian May to cut loose. A quote from May later maybe goes some way to explaining his frustration at the time. “Fred’s thing was less is more, make it more sparse, and play less guitar.”

Freddie Mercury wasn’t the only member of the band singling out the guitar. May told Mojo magazine in 1999 — “I remember John (Deacon) saying I didn’t play the type of guitar he wanted on his songs. We struggled bitterly with each other.”

In hindsight it’s understandable that a guitarist such as Brian May, the Jimi Hendrix devotee, who loves the sound of rock, and cutting loose, would have felt a little out of place in the Hot Space era.

As he was going through the project in 1982 he said — “I haven’t found it that easy to accustom myself to the new stuff. A lot of music which John and Freddie want to do is more R&B oriented, and it’s hard for me to do that because my playing is a reaction to that style, in a sense. I used to listen to people plucking away on Motown records, and I really didn’t like it. I always thought to myself, ‘That’s the kind of thing I don’t want to play. I want the guitar to be up there speaking’. So, in a way the return to that was difficult to me. It was a discipline which I gradually worked into, but I find myself wanting to burst out of it all the time and make a lot of noise.”

Chartwise, Hot Space still fared quite well, at least in the UK where it hit 4 on the charts and 22 in the U.S, which was one position higher than the following years — The Works.

First single Body Language got no higher than 25 in the UK chart but it was quite successful in America with a respectable 11 position.

The Body Language video also has the distinction of being the first video banned from MTV for content. Although there is some controversy over that fact.

Some reports have Blue Oyster Cult being banned for the song “Joan Crawford”. Personally I thought It was edited for content and still played, much like MTV did with Girls On Film by Duran Duran — but it was so long ago I could be wrong on that, and I couldn’t find much information on that either way.

I like Body Language, I guess as a Queen fan i’m in the minority there, but that’s cool, it’s got its tongue very firmly in cheek — cue the innuendos lol — and c’mon the looks on Brian May, John Deacon and particularly Roger Taylor at various points are priceless. Freddie of course was having a ball.

Aside from the inter personal relationships of the band, the release of Hot Space hit another problem — David Bowie requested backing vocals for Cool Cat be taken off as he wasn’t too happy with them.

Having heard the demo, I can say he was right. I’m a big Bowie fan but his vocals didn’t add anything worthwhile to Cool Cat, which is a track I really like in its album form.

Freddie Mercury, when interviewed said — “He did, sort of like, backing vocals on one of my songs that was on the album then — that’s not Under Pressure, that’s another one (Cool Cat) — and when it came to being released, I mean, he didn’t like what he did — and that was like — asshole, tells me right at the tail end when the thing is just about to come out. So, anyway, it’s artistic license, he just didn’t like his voice — right when it was about to come out — and I said fine, I said, it’s quite easy, all I do is erase his vocal and then out it came.It wasn’t like — he didn’t do a very in depth vocal at all. It was just background vocals.”

Of course, David Bowie does appear on Hot Space, on Under Pressure, but that’s a story in itself for another post.

So, once you reach the summit, the only way is down, and that was beginning to prove true in the case of Queen — but I think it’s time this masterpiece — and yes damn it — I did say masterpiece was given it’s fair dues.

Of course, I’ll be reviewing it in the future, and all the Hot Space detractors will crawl out of the woodwork to decry it once more — they’ll probably call me nuts for having such a stance — but I say bring it on haha. Of course I say that with good humour because after all — it’s all subjective right? — and we as individuals are always 100% correct for what we like ourselves.

I love Hot Space from start to finish but I’ll leave the final words to Brian May, who said in 1989 — “I think Hot Space was a mistake, if only timing-wise. We got heavily into funk, and it was quite similar to what Michael Jackson did on Thriller a couple of years ago, and the timing was wrong. Disco was a dirty word.”

Hi all. I’m an English teacher who also works in media, and I’ve lived and worked in Shanghai, China, for the past 13 years.

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