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Stripped Down. Well, Almost...
on 19 November 2003
After the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink production of "A Night At The Opera" and its follow-up "A Day At The Races", where on Earth could Queen go? Somewhere completely different is the answer this album provides.
Despite opening with two of Queen's most famous anthems (the second of which, "We Are The Champions", is possibly their most classically Queen-sounding single alongside "Bohemian Rhapsody"), this album is largely free of the bombastic, grandiloquent production which had become their trademark. This was 1977, the year of punk, and this album seems to represent Queen acknowledging the shift in public tastes to embrace a more stripped down, fuzzier, dirtier sound. Their equivalent of recording in the garage, perhaps - albeit a garage decorated with Persian rugs, chandeliers, marble cherubs, and fountains spewing champagne.
"Sheer Heart Attack" is the most prominent example of this. Fast, energetic and intense (and a staple encore in their live set for a few years subsequently), this is Queen letting off steam in a way most unusual for them on record.
The tender and melancholy "All Dead, All Dead", written and sung by Brian May, immediately switches the mood, and is one of only three songs containing his marque complex multitracked guitar work.
John Deacon's "Spread Your Wings" is simply beautiful; a narrative lyric about an unhappy young man's resolve to escape the confines of his small-town existence, dead-end job under a sneering boss and "leave his dead life behind". The sparse production adds an extra dimension to the song - I could be a little over-analytical here and suggest that it emphasises the emptiness of the protagonist's life and the desperation of his plight, but that would be a bit pretentious. Oh well, I've done it now anyway.
"Get Down, Make Love" is something of an oddity. Stark production rules again, bringing Roger Taylor's heavy drums to the fore alongside Freddie Mercury's lusty vocals, until the guitar-led chorus. Then we get to the middle section - a cornucopia of very strange noises indeed. A variety of effects are applied to Mercury's vocal gymnastics, and a listener unfamiliar with Queen's "No Synthesisers" ethic during the 70's could be forgiven for thinking they are hearing one here. It's actually May's guitar, played through something very technical and clever (at the time) that I know absolutely nothing about, other than that it makes his guitar sound very other-worldly and not at all like a guitar...
"Sleeping On The Sidewalk" is a one-take almost-live blues song. In many ways it sums up the overall feel of the album - the sound of a real band playing together and enjoying themselves. According to May, the first take was recorded totally live as a guide, but subsequent attempts to capture it lacked the "lazy" feel of the original, so what we hear on the album is for the most part assembled from the original take.
"Who Needs You", another Deacon composition, is again a simple arrangement simply produced, before "It's Late" returns us to the bleary, muddy, dirty sound explored earlier on the album. This is all-out hairy rock with a great stadium chorus, overblown but not over-produced and an energising, invigorating listen. Turn it right up.
One would think that this would be the logical big finish for the album, but Queen instead opt for a more subdued ending with Mercury's "My Melancholy Blues", a comment on his new-found glamourous lifestyle and its downside. It's actually quite a dark piece - Mercury reminds us here that despite his wealth and the allure attached to being a rock star, he's still a human being with human frailties. Even rock stars get lonely.
This album successfully bridges the gap between the bombast and operatics concluded on "A Day At The Races" the previous year, and the more poppy sound explored on "Jazz" the following year. Always prepared for a challenge and never satisfied to simply stick to one formula, Queen would continue to explore new sounds throughout their career. "News Of The World" is a fine example, and represents one of several significant and refreshing moves forward.