In December 2017 issue of MOJO Magazine – now on sale
December 2017 page 100
The brilliance and strangeness of Queen captured in raw alternative versions of their 1977album. But is it punk?, asks Mark Blake.
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News Of The World
On Boxing Day 1979, Queen, briefly possessed by the festive spirit, played a charity show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. Theirs was the first in a series of Concerts For The People Of Kampuchea. These gigs now offer a time-capsule snapshot of rock’s old and new guard at the end of the decade. In one frame, Wings and a Keith Moon-less Who; in another, The Clash and the Pretenders, with Queen somewhere in between.
Queen’s first encore was Sheer Heart Attack from News Of The World. A frantic celebration of adolescent turmoil, it climaxed with Freddie Mercury pushing over an amp and thrashing it with his mike stand before collapsing onto the stage, spread-eagled like starfish – albeit a starfish in red vinyl trousers and skateboarder’s kneepads.
The Clash were bringing righteous anger and class warfare to the Odeon the following night, so perhaps Queen didn’t want to be upstaged. Either way, it was quite the performance.
The late ’70s were a transitional time for Queen: not yet the rebooted pop stars of Under Pressure and Radio Ga Ga fame, but no longer the glam-rock popinjays of Bohemian Rhapsody. Two Queen albums capture that transition: 1978’s Jazz and its predecessor News Of The World.
This 40th birthday, multiformat edition of the latter includes the original News Of The World, accessorised with live and BBC session versions of the same songs. But its holy grail is Raw Sessions, a disc of rough mixes, demos or alternative takes of every track on the original LP, except for Brian May’s unfussy blues Sleeping On The Sidewalk, which is represented by a live cut.
These early sketches also include snippets of revealing studio conversation. “Did you like that sustained note?” asks a terribly polite Brian during an early take of Get Down, Make Love. “Yes, very good…” replies an impatient sounding Freddie. There’s a “but” coming. There was always a “but” coming. Which is why the demo’s subtle guitar fills were replaced by something harsher – and better – on the final album.
Queen recorded most of News Of The World at north London’s Wessex Sound studios in summer ’77. But it had its roots in two songs drummer Roger Taylor demoed earlier for a possible solo project. Taylor’s Sheer Heart Attack and Fight From The Inside, with its wrecking-ball guitar riff, might have sounded out of place on Queen’s previous LP, the cotton-wool soft A Day At The Races. But they fitted right into News Of The World.
The Sex Pistols and their producer Chris Thomas famously stopped by Wessex Sound to apply the finishing touches to Never Mind The Bollocks… while Queen were recording. This meeting has since been reimagined as a great symbolic moment, rather than a brief encounter between awkward rock stars with opposing haircuts. Yet the idea of News Of The World as Queen’s ‘punk album’ has stuck fast.
They key word here, though, is: raw. Even the dressiest songs are dressed down, and none of them are swamped by multiple overdubs. Thanks to whatever technological voodoo they conjured in the remastering process, you can now feel every slap of palm on palm during We Will Rock You, and almost hear the spittle hitting the microphone on We Are The Champions. As implausible as it sounds, there’s something new to discover in two of Queen’s most over-exposed songs.
There are times, though, when News Of The World strains to accommodate its four songwriters. It’s a jolt going from, say, We Are The Champions to Sheer Heart Attack. But less so to Brian May’s All Dead, All Dead, with its dynamic mix of stately piano and screaming guitar. A version of the song with Mercury singing lead vocals is included on Raw Sessions.
The guitarist’s It’s Late was another of the original album’s sometimes neglected moments, buried at the back end of side two. The song rolls into earshot like a conventional bump-and-grind – imagine a slightly camp Bad Company – before running up against a wall of choral harmonies.
As was often the case on Queen records, it’s bass guitarist John Deacon who steams in from left field, with two songs so disparate it’s hard to believe they were written by the same person. Who Needs You is an inoffensive if inessential salsa. But Spread Your Wings, a modest hit in February ’78, is one of those rare grandstanding Queen anthems that hasn’t overstayed its welcome yet.
And so, to Mercury. Unusually, he took a back-seat here, composing just three of its 11 songs. Melancholy Blues is worth the price of admission for its comically over-enunciated rhyming of “party’s over” with “cold sober”. But the sexually-charged Get Down, Make Love is the singer’s party piece: its sedate demo transformed by explosive powerchords and electronic howls on the finished article. It sounds like The Beatles’ Come Together played by robots.
The brilliance and strangeness of Queen is captured right there in its 3:50 minutes. What this expanded edition reminds us is how much Freddie Mercury was often the glue holding this most peculiar of bands together. If, at times, News Of The World sounds conflicted, it’s his unstinting commitment to the material, and the whole group’s innate musicality that saves it. Every time you think they’re going to fall off the edge of the cliff, Queen somehow pull it back.
“What did you think of that?” asks John Deacon at the end of one demo. “Ooh, lovely,” trills Mercury. And most of the time he’s right.
QUEEN IN FOCUS
● The expanded NOTW has a 60-minute documentary, Queen: The American Dream, filmed on their 1977 US tour. Old Grey Whistle Test’s Bob Harris went on the road with and interviewed them. Some of the film has surfaced, but the doc was never finished or made available until now.
Among its treasures: live footage, Queen backstage in dressing gowns and Y-fronts, and recording We Are The Champions. Here, Mercury is seen piecing the song together with an engineer and co-producer Mike Stone, plus a very ‘1970s’ image of Roger Taylor smoking a ciggie while drumming.
● We Will Rock You (Fast, BBC Session)
● We Are The Champions
● Sheer Heart Attack
● Spread Your Wings
● Get Down, Make Love
● It’s Late”
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