Once upon a time, a band called Queen put a note in the credits of their first album: “And nobody played synthesizer”.
By 1982’s Hot Space, this credo was long gone. In its place, a slick new sounding Queen that did not resonate with Americans the same way old Queen did. Hot Space still bore a fair share of hits, though very different sounding ones from the olden days.
“Staying Power” opens the album with blasts of horns and funky synths. On tracks like this, without any bass guitar, John Deacon played rhythm. “Staying Power” represents the shape of Queen to come. It wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 1989’s The Miracle. The horns give it the needed punch. Then Brian May’s “Dancer” slinks over, a disco rock tune with some (just some) trademark layers of Queen guitars.
If you feel like gettin’ down on the dancefloor, then “Back Chat” is the song for you. It’s in the same vein as disco Kiss, but with the kind of funky authenticity that Queen can bring to the party. “Back Chat” is the album’s first completely memorable song, provided by John Deacon. Fortunately it has real bass, to keep that groove dirty. As a single, it didn’t perform as well as “Body Language ↑⬱”, though it’s a superior song. “Body Language ↑⬱” is all synth with no meat.
Roger Taylor’s funk rocker “Action This Day” boasts a cool sax solo, but the synth drums are lifeless. It’s much better live (find this version on CD 2) with real instruments. Brian May’s “Put Out the Fire” is a welcome return to traditional Queen instrumentation. “Put Out the Fire” is the only song that sounds like “classic” Queen. If you heard it for the first time, you sure wouldn’t assume it was from Hot Space. It’s what you would call a “stock” Queen rocker. No embellishment, no quarter.
Going topical, Freddie tackled the difficult subject of the recently murdered John Lennon. “Life is Real (Song for Lennon)” is composed like a John song, with piano being the main musical support. May’s solo is one of his most tender and warm, but the song is not their most memorable. Taylor’s “Calling All Girls” is far catchier, and would probably be considered a classic if it were better known.
Brian’s ballad “Las Palabras de Amor (The Words of Love)” received worldwide attention at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992, performed with Zucchero Fornaciari. In this case, the synths work with the song and not against it. They create a dreamy landscape, perfect for Freddie’s plaintive singing. This fantastic ballad is up there with the more famous Queen classics.
“Cool Cat” was recorded as a duet with David Bowie, who was unsatisfied. Although the Bowie mix made it to a test pressing, it was removed from the album and has yet to see a re-release. A dusky, slinky tune like “Cool Cat” would sound neat with Bowie aboard. David’s there for “Under Pressure” (obviously), which doesn’t need discussing because everybody knows that song. Or should. Immediately. It is rock magic, born of a jam between the five musicians. When magic happens, it can create songs as perfect as “Under Pressure”.
Hot Space is a bit wobbly, but the bonus disc evens things out a bit. A soul ballad B-side called “Soul Brother” might have worked better on the album than some of the songs that made it. The single remix of “Back Chat” gives us a chance to revisit the album’s most addictive song. Check out the fast, very dexterous live version of “Staying Power”. It is pretty impressive even if it’s not one of Queen’s greatest songs. The performance on the live take is a lesson by the masters on playing live, so listen up. Similarly, live versions of “Action This Day” and “Calling All Girls” get an injection of life on the stage.
Hot Space shouldn’t be too high on anyone’s Queen want lists, but it shouldn’t be ignored either. Check out the 2 CD version for the worthwhile additions.