Plenty of artists like to experiment with new sounds and different genres. Sometimes it’ll be a temporary or one-time thing, like when KISS tried disco (I’m sorry, KISSco), the Rolling Stones went psychedelic or Garth Brooks kind-of went pop.
Other times, it’ll be a catalyst for long-term re-invention. Chicago had a surprise hit with “If You Leave Me Now” and they continued writing songs of that ilk, transitioning from a jazz-and-big-band-influenced rock group into an adult contemporary band. The Bee Gees resurrected their careers and eventually became a full-fledged dance band after recording “Jive Talkin’.” Less successful bands like The Goo Goo Dolls, Sugar Ray and Smash Mouth embraced their black-sheep hits and permanently changed directions in order to continue churning out similar-sounding singles and albums.
We’ll never know if Hot Space was meant as a permanent shift for Queen because it flopped so hard that the band promptly retreated back to more familiar territory – but not before tanking their popularity in America.
The 80s started off with a bang for Queen. In 1980, the band released The Game, which went quadruple platinum in the U.S. and produced two monster singles: “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust.” Even for a band known for experimenting and recording unconventional songs, both of those singles represented a departure for Queen; “Crazy” was inspired by rockabilly and Elvis Presley while “Dust” was a disco track. Both songs also did huge business, with “Another One Bites the Dust” selling 4 million copies in America alone.
The band then undertook a massive tour that saw them play before record-breaking crowds in South America, including 300,000 in one night in Buenos Aires and 250,000 over two nights in São Paulo, Brazil. In addition, Queen drew big crowds in Mexico and sold out Madison Square Garden and the Montreal Forum.
Queen then capped off a successful 1981 by releasing its first greatest hits record. The album went 8x platinum in the U.S. and became the best-selling album in U.K. history, spending an astonishing 868 weeks on the charts.
However, darkness was right around the corner. In 1982, Queen found itself in the midst of one of the worst and most tumultuous times in the band’s history – and that’s saying something. Having decamped to Munich, long known as their home away from home, the members of Queen indulged their vices inside the decadent city and it started affecting their work ethic. “I think the excess leaked out from the music into life and became a need. Queen was a wonderful vehicle and a wonderful, magical combination, but I think it came close to destroying us all. [We] were the biggest thing in the world for a moment in time and everything that goes with that really messes up your mind somehow,” guitarist Brian May recalled.
Additionally, the four were not at all on the same page when it came time to get to work. Lead singer Freddie Mercury and bassist John Deacon wanted to do a more dance-oriented album in the vein of “Another One Bites the Dust” while May and drummer Roger Taylor wanted to do a more traditional rock record. Mercury, in particular, was in a completely different space from his bandmates. Partly, it was because he had always enjoyed Munich a lot more than the others.
The other part was Paul Prenter – Queen’s own Yoko Ono, at least as far as May and Taylor were concerned. Prenter was Mercury’s manager and lover who, according to May and Taylor, carefully controlled who had access to the Queen frontman. That is to say, May and Taylor accused Prenter of keeping Mercury isolated from the rest of the band. Whether it was because he was trying to steer Mercury towards a solo career or he was trying to monopolize his sugar daddy’s time, Prenter was blamed for the disco-influenced Hot Space.
He was a very, very bad influence on Freddie, hence on the band, really. He very much wanted our music to sound like you’d just walked into a gay club. And I didn’t.Roger Taylor interview, quoted in “Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury,” by Matt Richards, Mark Langthorne.
May has, since, taken a more charitable view of both Prenter and Hot Space – comparing the latter favorably to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which came out a few months afterward. For his part, Jackson, who was good friends with Mercury and had helped convince the latter that “Another One Bites the Dust” would be a big hit in America, has cited Hot Space as an influence on him while recording Thriller. Of course, Thriller was a huge success and one of the best-selling albums of all time while Hot Space ended Queen’s popularity in the U.S. and nearly ruined their career.
So where did Queen go wrong? Well, for one, the songs on Thriller are far superior to Hot Space. Other than “Under Pressure,” the duet with David Bowie that became one of Queen’s greatest and most loved songs, the songs on this album made minimal impact at the time they were released and have been largely forgotten about in the years since.
On the one hand, there are some good tracks on this record. Album opener “Staying Power,” with its uptempo dance beat and (in a first for Queen) horn section, definitely sounds like a forerunner to “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” As a single, it failed to chart in the U.S., which is a shame since it’s probably the best dance song on the album. Meanwhile, the live version, which strips out the horns, speeds up the tempo and amps up the funk factor, kicks all kinds of ass:
Another highlight is Deacon’s “Back Chat,” a catchy funk-inspired number that sounds like a product of his time hanging in the studio with Chic. With accusatory lyrics like “Back chat, back chat, you burn all my energy / Back chat, back chat, criticizing all you see” and “Talk back, talk back, you’ve got me on the rack / Twisting every word I say, you wind me up and get your way,” one theory is that the song is a shot at May and his general discontent with the sessions. May has said that Deacon was inflexible when it came to his songs on the album and wanted them to sound nothing like traditional Queen.
In fact, most of the album doesn’t sound like anything the band had ever done before. On “Life Is Real (Song for Lennon),” Mercury sings a piano-based ballad in the style of John Lennon as a way of paying tribute to the recently killed Beatle. There are flourishes that resemble “Imagine,” “Jealous Guy” and even “In My Life” on the piece, and as well as poignant, if understated vocals from Mercury. The beauty of Mercury as a singer was that he always seemed to know when to let loose and when to hold back. In this case he produces a nice, heartfelt song that serves as a welcome change-of-pace from the rest of the album.
On other parts of the album, Queen’s experimentation falls flat. “Action This Day” is the band trying to do a New Wave song and seeming about as out of place as A Flock of Seagulls trying to do prog rock. May’s “Dancer” sounds like a second-rate version of Billy Squire’s 1981 hit “The Stroke,” a song that had also been produced by Hot Space producer Reinhold Mack. Squire would open for Queen on the Hot Space Tour – four years before his career came to a crashing halt after one of the worst and most disastrous music videos of all time.
Meanwhile, “Cool Cat,” which does not feature May or Taylor, sees Mercury singing in falsetto and singing lovingly to an unnamed “cool cat” while a pornoesque R&B beat plays behind him. Bowie was supposed to guest on the track (there is a demo on YouTube where you can hear him half-mumbling a few bars in the middle-eight) but he didn’t like the song and requested his vocals be removed at the last minute. Bowie was probably right to do so as “Cool Cat” is a grating and bizarre song that really gets annoying after a few bars.
But perhaps the biggest departure on Hot Space, besides the dance music, is that, lyrically, it is far more explicit and openly sexual than prior records. The near-guitarless second single, “Body Language” is a sparsely produced dance track that features a moaning and groaning Mercury singing about “long legs, great thighs” and “the cutest ass I’ve ever seen.” While the lyrics are gender neutral, plenty of people, including May, have interpreted this song as Freddie singing about men.
In a similar vein, “Staying Power” is full of double and single entendres like “You know I got what it takes / And I can take a lot,” “I wonder when we’re gonna stick it / I wonder when we’re gonna trick it” and “Blow baby blow / Let’s get down and go go.” And if there were any doubt about the meaning behind this song, there was, apparently, a demo with alternate lyrics where Freddie sang “Fucking Power” every time he was supposed to say “Staying Power.”
The overt sexuality of these songs breathed new life into a long-running, albeit subtle backlash against the band, in particular Mercury. To be fair, there were plenty of non-sexual reasons why critics disliked the band. They broke norms as to what could be a marketable single and were, arguably, one of the first bands to take the bombast and electricity of their live performances and make them into an indelible part of their recorded sound. Many of their songs were clearly written and recorded with venues like Wembley or Knebworth in mind. That’s probably why their famed Live Aid set was so great – they sounded better on the stage that day than they did on their albums.
While that may have made for great theatrics, it also made it easy to criticize Queen as a band of style over substance. Throw in their supposed indifference towards politics and social issues and willingness to play in countries with repressive regimes (like the aforementioned gig before 300,000 in Argentina at the height of the “Dirty War” or a highly controversial set of shows in 1984 at Sun City in South Africa at a time when most artists were boycotting the apartheid regime) and that led to some critics accusing them of being a band “on the side of power” at best, or a “fascist rock band” at worst. Critics even accused Queen of invoking the image of Nazi rallies at Nuremberg for its video for 1984’s “Radio Ga Ga.” Queen were so widely disliked in the mid-80s, especially by liberal and left-wing musical acts and artists, that they weren’t even invited to record “Do They Know It’s Christmas” as part of Band Aid in 1984 – something that greatly upset Mercury.
But all of that was secondary to what had always been the elephant in the room: Mercury’s sexuality. Despite seeming like an obvious gay man, Mercury had always been coy about his private life. During the early days of the band, he would often talk about his relationships with women, particularly the one he nearly married, Mary Austin.
But by the time Hot Space came out, Freddie no longer seemed interested in playing straight anymore. Throughout the 70s, he had adopted an androgynous stage persona – a more flamboyant version of Bowie or a campier version of Marc Bolan. If Bryan Ferry represented one extreme of the glam scale – cold, distant and inscrutable (he was memorably referred to as a “Dracula-type-Presley“), Mercury was the other end. His performances and stage presence not only invited the audience in, they practically begged for it.
By the 80s, however, Mercury had ditched the harlequin unitards, cut his hair, grown a mustache and adopted the “Castro clone” look that was popular in gay circles during that time. His performances, formerly ambiguous (at least for those unwilling to look beneath the surface) had become so in your face that only blind and deaf people could continue to profess ignorance about his proclivities. That seeming open embrace of his sexuality was a bridge too far for many – particularly in America.
By taking it onstage – in particular during a Queen performance of ‘Another One Bites the Dust,’ when Mercury pranced across the stage in tight shorts, firing out phrases like ‘bite it’ and ‘bite it hard, baby’ – he seemed to come as close as he ever would to a public admission of his sexuality. At some shows on the band’s 1980 American tour, fans tossed disposable razor blades onstage: They didn’t like this identity of Mercury – what they perceived as a brazenly gay rock & roll hero – and they wanted him to shed it.Mikal Gilmore, “Queen’s Tragic Rhapsody,” published in Rolling Stone, July 7, 2014.
Between his sexual provocation and the overall mediocrity of Hot Space, Queen’s popularity in the U.S. was deader than disco. The album only went gold in America- a far cry from predecessors The Game and Greatest Hits. Other than “Under Pressure,” which was actually released half a year before the album, none of the singles off Hot Space made much of an impact on the charts. During the ensuing tour, the band seemed to know that the album was not their best.
Now most of you know that we got some new sounds out in the last week. For what it’s worth, we’re gonna do a few songs in the funk black category, whatever you call it. That doesn’t mean we’ve lost our rock & roll feel, okay! I mean it’s only a bloody record! People get so excited about these things. We just want to try out a few new sounds.Freddie Mercury, Milton Keynes Bowl, 1982
The classic lineup of the band would never perform in America again after the end of the Hot Space Tour and drove the final nail into their coffin by releasing a video for 1984’s “I Want to Break Free” featuring each bandmember in drag. Crossdressing for comedic purposes was no big deal in the UK (heck, Monty Python turned it into an art form), but it was still very taboo in the U.S.
I remember being on the promo tour in the Midwest of America and people’s faces turning ashen and they would say, no, we can’t play this. We can’t possibly play this. You know, it looks homosexual. And I went: ‘So?’ But it was a huge deal. And I know that it really damaged our sort of whole relationship with certainly radio in this country and probably the public as well…Brian May interview, 2010
The band would bounce back in the UK and Europe – in no small part because of that aforementioned Live Aid performance and because subsequent albums went back to sounding like traditional Queen. By then, Prenter was out of the picture, but not before getting one last act of revenge against Mercury by telling all to a UK tabloid.
As for the U.S., it wouldn’t be until Wayne’s World came out in 1992 that their fortunes rebounded. By then, unfortunately, Mercury had died of AIDS-related illnesses, sadly seeing his words come true: “I suppose I’ll have to die before we get America back.”
The band’s status may have been restored, but their renewed popularity has not extended to Hot Space. In subsequent incarnations with Paul Rodgers and Adam Lambert, Queen rarely played anything off this album that wasn’t called “Under Pressure.” Given the poor reception and bad memories associated with this record, I guess it makes sense.