Ready, Freddie: How The Game Changed Queen 40 Years Ago

In 1980, the arena-rock royals’ finest moment embraced disco, rockabilly, and more

You only had to look at the cover of The Game to know things had changed since Queen’s last album. 

On their previous studio record, 1978’s Jazz, the band was still sporting shaggy ’70s hair, suspenders, dance shoes, and epically unbuttoned shirts. By 1980, Queen was coming off like a ’50s motorcycle gang — slicked-back hair, t-shirts, shades, and lots of black leather. But they weren’t only meeting the ’80s with a new look. 

Queen had also abandoned the grand art-rock ice castles of Roy Thomas Baker’s production for the in-your-face approach of a German upstart named Reinhold Mack, who went only by his surname. Recording in Munich, they made the most musically satisfying and commercially successful album of their esteemed career, reinventing themselves multiple times before the first side was over. 

The natural move for arena-rockers like Queen as they entered a new era might have been a New Wave move, with synths and drum machines a-go go. They’d get around to that on their next album, Hot Space, with enervated results. Instead they amplified the eclecticism that had always been part of their makeup, ratcheting up the urgency along the way, for an album as varied as it was visceral, without a moment’s letup. And for the first time, Queen was learning to do more with less, making a virtue of simplicity.

Queen The Game, Elektra 1980

But that wasn’t the only way Queen responded to the musical moment. Though they’d been one of the bands that defined arena rock in the ’70s, Freddie Mercury was logging lots of time in gay discos by this point. And when bassist John Deacon came in with “Another One Bites the Dust,” a tune that had major disco potential, Mercury wasn’t about to ignore it. (The disco aspect too would expand on Hot Space).

 

VIDEO: Queen “Another One Bites The Dust”

The minimalistic production and funky feel of “Dragon Attack,” complete with syncopated bass solo, arrives as something of a set-up for the equally stripped-down and even more danceable “Another One Bites the Dust,” which immediately follows it on the record. And she spare, visceral vibe of both songs might not have been possible without Mack’s sonic guidance.

 

VIDEO: Queen perform “Dragon Attack” in Montreal 1981

Queen’s venture into disco with “Another One Bites the Dust” wasn’t without precedent. Both the Rolling Stones and Kiss had already gone that route with great success on “Miss You” and “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” respectively. But neither of those approached the phenomenal cross-cultural impact of Queen’s dip into danceability. The song became an international blockbuster, and in America it hit the pop, soul, and disco charts simultaneously with its spare, slinky, four-on-the-floor groove and sensually insinuating riff, earning the band new fans in communities previously outside their reach.

It would not be the album’s only stylistically anomalous megahit. Mercury’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” was a ’50s rockabilly pastiche complete with walking bass line, Jordanaires-style backing vocals, and a Brian May guitar solo that felt like an homage to Gene Vincent’s legendary axe man Cliff Gallup. This too became a worldwide smash. 

Deacon’s “Need Your Loving Tonight” was another departure for the band. It’s a straight-up power pop tune, hooky as all get out, with Queen coming off like a harder-rocking Raspberries.

Queen didn’t sever completely from the past on The Game though. Songs like May’s sentimental “Sail Away Sweet Sister” and heart-on-sleeve power ballad “Save Me,” and Mercury’s outsized, dramatic title track would have been at home on just about any of the band’s ’70s albums. But here too, Mack manages to achieve the kind of epic proportions Queen was famous for while still making things feel more immediate and tactile.

 

 

VIDEO: Queen “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”

In general, Mercury, May, Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor were each at the top of their own personal game in terms of both writing and performance. Even Taylor, whose songwriting contributions were seldom up to the level of his bandmates, reaches a compositional peak, with the sleek rockers “Coming Soon” and “Rock It (Prime Jive)” numbering among his finest contributions to the Queen catalog.

Unfortunately Queen’s time on the mountaintop was limited. After the soundtrack to Flash Gordon later in ’80, their next proper album, 1982’s Hot Space, would be their commercial and musical nadir, mired in ’80s production clichés and moribund material.

But in the summer of 1980, Queen ruled the world, and quite rightly.

 

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