Pick any significant music artist you like, and if you look hard enough, you’ll find what I like to call their “essential non-essential” album. This is a record that may have fit a specific need at the time for the artist or their audience. Or it may have been the hastily-recorded contractual obligation that might contain a few surprisingly good tunes. Or the misguided genre experiment. The original purpose for an essential non-essential has often been long forgotten, but the album remains a relic.
As a lifelong pop music fan, I have become a connoisseur of these small, weird musical souvenirs that inevitably live in the basement of ranked album discographies all across the Internet. Because of this quirk in my personality, I am happy to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Queen’s 1982 album, Hot Space, even if most fans would prefer to let this particular date go unnoticed. Hot Space simply checks too many boxes for me to ignore it. Hot Space is:
- An alleged disco sell-out album by a massive rock band.
- A classic “mainstream artist dabbles in new wave” record.
- A textbook case of a band formed in the 1970s trying to grapple with the 1980s.
- An album that was bewildering to longtime fans.
- A record that contains both a) a possible career-wrecking single and b) another single widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest songs the band ever recorded.
- An LP containing a John Lennon tribute song, a thriving subgenre of early 1980s pop.
- A gateway album for younger fans who had been pulled into Queen fandom by tractor beam hit singles like “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”.
- So much more. Or, according to some fans, so much less.
How one reacts to Hot Space will be dictated by one’s relationship with Queen. If you were a longtime fan back in the 1970s, your thoughts on the album will generally not be positive. Conversely, if you are a younger fan who wasn’t around in 1982, your journey through the band’s discography may not have yet led you to Hot Space. Then there are the teenage new wavers in 1982 who happened to have an utterly unironic capacity to enjoy enormous disco hits as well. We were the demographic for Hot Space.
I don’t remember the first time I heard Queen, though I suspect it was when “Bohemian Rhapsody” was having its run up the charts in 1975. The real breakthrough for some of my Catholic grade school classmates was 1977’s News of the World album, with its double hit single, “We Will Rock You”/”We Are the Champions”.
I mention Catholic school because I distinctly remember the time that our music teacher let us bring rock records to class. The day when the pastor unexpectedly dropped by at just the moment “Get Down Make Love” was blasting out of Danny’s copy of News of the World is seared into my memory.
I liked the Queen songs I knew, but I still felt scared by the perceived “heaviness” of the band. However, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust”, the enormous hit singles from Queen’s 1980 album, The Game, won me over completely.
I was now a Queen fan, though I didn’t bother to buy or listen to The Game. I didn’t need to since Queen helpfully released their Greatest Hits album in 1981. This compilation gave fledging fans everything they needed in one place, including their recent movie soundtrack, hit “Flash” and “Under Pressure”, a brand new and mind-blowing collaboration with David Bowie.
Queen released Hot Space in May 1982, and it was the first Queen album I ever heard in its entirety. Oddly, it remains the album I’ve listened to most often beginning-to-end. After a few listens, it became apparent musically speaking that Hot Space was how the 1980s were going to work for Queen and others. This was a premature conclusion on my part – R.E.M. had not even recorded Murmur, a game-changer in college rock – but it was an understandable assumption in the summer of 1982.
Queen make their intentions plain the moment the needle drops on Hot Space. The opening track, “Staying Power”, is literally and figuratively horny. Freddie Mercury expresses confidence that he and a prospective lover will have the titular power once they split the dance floor and head home for fun and games.
Synth tones thread their way through the minimalist funk rhythm, proving once and for all that Queen’s reign as a “no synthesizers!” band was definitely over. “Staying Power” also features the largest horn section you’re likely to hear this side of Chicago, the band that is. The album’s liner notes read, “Special Thanks to Arif Mardin, who arranged and produced some hot and spacey horns on ‘Staying Power’.” Indeed. Written by Freddie Mercury, it follows through on the funky rock sound Queen worked up for “Another One Bites the Dust”, minus the rock. It’s quirky funk, and made listeners notice that Hot Space was going to be a different kind of Queen album.
The following three songs find Queen continuing to explore the dance floor. Brian May’s “Dancer” brings some snarly rock guitar to the discotheque, though it’s easy to wonder if the first lyric in the song – “I wasn’t invited to the party” – was May’s subtle commentary on Queen’s change of direction. John Deacon’s sleek and shimmery “Back Chat” is another disco banger/red flag for those hungry for some grandiose guitars and lyrics about ogres and fairies.
Rock fans holding on to some shred of hope during these initial Hot Space tracks found those being dashed to pieces during the notorious “Body Language”. Mercury’s bass-driven meditation on somebody’s sexy body is, like “Staying Power”, devoid of anything old school Queen fans could hold onto and potentially cherish. Mercury’s vocal and Deacon’s bass are front-and-center, accentuated by light percussion, many finger snaps, and synth blasts that fictional Queen superfans Wayne and Garth, had they been around in 1982, would clearly have identified as “schwing” sound effects.
Curiously, Queen released “Body Language” as the lead-off single for Hot Space, and it reached #11 on Billboard’s US Hot 100 singles chart. It also hit a variety of other Billboard charts: Dance Club Songs (#62), Mainstream Rock (#19), and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs (#30). “Body Language” stalled at #25 on the UK charts, while it peaked at a lofty #3 on charts in both Canada and Poland. Being based primarily on a looping bass line, “Body Language” was an easy song for anyone with a record player and a cassette tape deck to remix.
Despite its relative chart success, “Body Language” was, and remains, a polarizing Queen track. It’s easy to imagine diehard fans, faced with “Body Language”, forcibly yanking Hot Space from their record players and flinging it out the window. But listeners who did that would have missed the first marginally “rock” tune on Hot Space. Roger Taylor’s “Action This Day” is punchy new wave rock, but it’s rock nonetheless. Flip the side on the original vinyl, and the rock continues with Brian May’s topical “Put Out the Fire”, a song about gun control that may have been inspired by John Lennon’s murder in 1980.
Lennon’s presence is more obviously present in Mercury’s moody “Life Is Real (Song for Lennon)”, an odd entry in the Lennon tribute canon. George Harrison’s “All Those Years Ago” always felt a tad emotionally removed, while Paul McCartney’s “Here Today” is the most intimate, and Elton John’s “Empty Garden (Hey, Hey Johnny)” is possibly the saddest of the lot. Of all these songs, “Life Is Real (Song for Lennon)” is the one that most clearly evokes Lennon’s mid-‘70s dreamy ballad song style. Mercury is seemingly channeling Lennon here, not talking specifically about the man, other than to imply that the late Beatle is “a genius / Living in every pore.”
While the dance floor was a priority, Queen weren’t averse to creating at least one pure pop gem for Hot Space. Roger Taylor’s “Calling All Girls” is one of the great unheralded songs in the Queen catalog. The lyrics make it clear that the message is old but true (spoiler: it’s a message of love), but, as attempts at new wavish pop by non-new wave artists go, the delightful “Calling All Girls” is one of the best.
After a few more songs that dabble in ornate balladry (“Las Palabras de Amor”, which, like “Body Language”, hit big in Poland) and lite slow jam soul (“Cool Cat”), Hot Space pulls out its ace in the hole, the majestic Bowie collaboration, “Under Pressure”. Having already been a hit single and having appeared on Greatest Hits, “Under Pressure” was old news. Still, it manages to help the weird odyssey of Hot Space ends strongly as the finger snaps of Queen members and Bowie mystically fade into the record’s run-off groove.
While “Under Pressure” has taken its place among all-time classics in both the Bowie and Queen catalogs, it’s worth noting that it didn’t chart quite as high as listeners around at the time might think it did. While it hit #1 in the UK, it only peaked at #29 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Despite that and the Vanilla Ice/”Ice Ice Baby” fiasco, “Under Pressure” is revered today as an emotionally cathartic pop song, though it’s hardly associated with Hot Space anymore.
Queen and David Bowie had one memorable moment to perform “Under Pressure” together: at Live Aid on 13 July 1985. Bowie and Queen were both at London’s Wembley Stadium, but an “Under Pressure” collaboration was apparently not considered that day. Given the ever-growing status of Queen’s Live Aid show as one of the most outstanding live rock performances, it’s intriguing to think about how “Under Pressure” could have played a role in the proceedings.
Also, for those who might think that Queen at Live Aid has been overly mythologized due to the Bohemian Rhapsody biopic, I will note that I was at the Philadelphia Live Aid show. Sitting in broiling heat, watching Queen’s mesmerizing performance on giant screens flanking the JFK Stadium stage, I clearly remember thinking, “Wow, Queen is totally kicking ass today.” That is a stronger memory for me than some of the performances I saw onstage in South Philly that day.
Queen toured the United States behind Hot Space in the summer of 1982 (Queen’s last American tour), and live recordings on the expanded issue of the album find them sounding fully invested in performing songs from the record. “Staying Power” finds its horns replaced by even more synths, but the song also gains a punky edge and a breakneck pace. The band also stomps through “Action This Day”, and translates “Calling All Girls” nicely in the live setting.
Despite the US tour, Hot Space did not meet the expectations created by the success of The Game, and Queen retrenched for future releases, cutting back considerably on any semblance of dance floor action. Subsequent albums had highlights, lowlights, and even some hits. Innuendo, the final Queen album released during Mercury’s lifetime, is particularly poignant. However, in Queen’s later years, no other album is as weirdly eclectic as Hot Space is. That’s fine, though. One gloriously essential non-essential album is enough for any band.