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If Queen had spent painstaking hours in the studio recording both A Night At The Opera (1975) and A Day At The Races (1976), for News Of The World they took an entirely different approach. With punk’s DIY ethos in the ascendant, Freddie, Brian, Roger and John took control of all aspects of News Of The World’s creation, producing the album themselves, with just the help of Mike Stone, who was on hand to perform engineering duties. Dispatching with the sessions in a mere two months, Queen produced a varied, vital work that revealed how the band had grown since the 1973 release of their self-titled debut album.
Speaking about News Of The World’s variety, Freddie Mercury noted, “I think one of the things that we really steer clear of is trying to repeat the same formula. As the albums have progressed, our songwriting has progressed, and we’ve sort of ventured into different areas.”
Indeed, News Of The World is arguably the band’s most diverse album, detonating stadium anthems ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘We Are The Champions’ before racing through the punky thrasher ‘Sheer Heart Attack’, and then shifting gears yet again for the yearning ‘Spread Your Wings’ and closing with the introspective ballad ‘My Melancholy Blues’.
On the band’s decision to handle production duties themselves, John Deacon recalled, “It comes to a stage where all you really need is an engineer, because the idea of balancing, and sounds you want – an artist or musician should really know what they want… And when you’re doing a mix and you’re mixing down a track from the tapes… we actually sit down and work the controls as well.”
Roger Taylor recalled that Freddie “had a vision and he was very driven” when it came to the technical aspects of recording. “He was very good on the desk, moving the faders, balancing the harmonies and getting the things to do what he wanted.” And while Roger recalls that each band member would “pitch in with each other’s songs”, Freddie’s singular drive extended to his own compositions.
“With my kind of songs, I seem to more or less have everything rehearsed,” he recalled. “If I write a song then I sort of take it upon myself – from the actual writing stages to the rehearsing, to the routining and to the recording – as being my project. So I sort of handle that.”
Notably, Freddie brought ‘We Are The Champions’ to the sessions, a song which he variously described as “pure commercial… the most egotistical and arrogant song I’ve ever written”, and “a participation thing” designed to be performed in front of an audience.
Brian May recalled being “shocked” when he first heard it, asking, “Are we really gonna stand up and say, ‘We are the champions,’ as opposed to every other group and every other person on the face of this earth?” But Freddie revealed what was really behind the song: “Rock’n’roll is the only place where everybody has a feeling of like being in a team, but you’re not fighting anybody.”
‘We Are The Champions’ was, famously, released as a single, coupled with ‘We Will Rock You’ – a song which, according to Brian, also had its genesis in crowd participation. “We played this great hall in the Midlands and it was packed… Everybody’s jumping up and down making a noise. And what they were doing was singing along,” he recalled. Taken aback by the reaction, Brian set out to write a song that would embrace the audience as part of the show. “They’re all crammed in and they can’t do much,” he noted, but “they can stamp their feet, they can clap their hands and they can sing”. If Queen pulled it off, the audience “would be singing the song rather than the singer”.
What did Freddie make of that? His immediate reaction, once Brian had sung the song to him, was “Yep, it’s gonna work.”
Now the album’s calling cards, both songs sit between the two extremes of News Of The World: ‘My Melancholy Blues’ (a song that Freddie described as being “so different from anything that we’ve done before” that it was both “nice” and “very difficult at the same time”), and the Roger -penned ‘Sheer Heart Attack’, a holdover from the 1974 album of the same name – and a song that provided its own difficulties.
It’s “murder to play on stage, it’s so fast”, Roger noted. But the song, which bursts out of the traps with no apologies, was perfect for the year when punk hit the mainstream.
“Roger was much more aware than the rest of us,” Brian recalled. “I remember him talking about the Sex Pistols very early on and getting excited about it.”
“I thought, you know, this is so fresh,” Roger said. “And I thought we needed a little bit of that kind of sensibility.” Fans may have initially been taken aback by such a shift in style from the band, but, as Roger noted, “it became a live staple”.
Recalling how the band presented the new songs on stage – during a tour that became their biggest to date, and which saw them become arena rock gods on both sides of the Atlantic – Freddie said, “I feel a lot of people now realise, when they come to see our show, that they’re gonna get a lot of contrasts… I like to think that I can do different things. I don’t like to just think, OK, rock’n’roll, I’m gonna go up there, put on my high-heeled shoes and play the songs. I like to think we do so many different types of songs that when we try and put them over, they require a different sort of format.”
As News Of The World – and, indeed, the rest of Queen’s remarkable albums – proved, in Freddie’s words, “We’re not scared of trying different ideas, you know.”
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Containing enduring hits ‘Spread Your Wings’ and the legendary pairing of ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘We Are The Champions’, Queen’s consummate sixth album, News Of The World, richly deserves its reputation as one of the touchstones of classic rock. Yet it’s not just the quality of its music that sets the record apart: its evocative cover art has an allure which continues to fascinate new generations of fans.
Prior to News Of The World, Queen had already constructed a powerful visual identity, drawing considerable praise for photographer Mick Rock’s diamond formation group photograph adorning Queen II, and the heraldic, coat-of-arms designs that graced 1975’s A Night At The Opera and its successor, A Day At The Races.
News Of The World’s cover art, however, proved to be a major stylistic departure for the band. The original concept came from drummer Roger Taylor, an avid science-fiction fan who remembered an old magazine illustration depicting a giant robot with a blood-stained finger, holding on to a seemingly lifeless man.
Originally captioned “Please… fix it, Daddy?” the artwork so vividly recalled by Taylor had been created by Frank Kelly Freas, an esteemed American artist who first came to prominence during the 50s. The image had originally appeared on the cover of the October 1953 edition of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, and it illustrated a story, The Gulf Between, penned by author Tom Godwin and which appeared inside the same issue.
Freas’ oeuvre, however, extended way beyond the realms of sci-fi. In addition to designing posters for NASA, from 1955 to 1962, he was a cover artist for Mad magazine, where he developed the image of the publication’s mascot, the grinning, gap-toothed Alfred E Neuman, whose signature phrase, “What? Me worry?” became a popular slogan in the States.
Still active as an illustrator during the mid-70s, Freas was living in Virginia when Queen contacted him to discuss the idea of adapting his original artwork for News Of The World. Predominantly a classical music fan, the artist was unaware of Queen’s music, but his interest was nonetheless piqued and he agreed to rework his original for the album cover.
Consequently – and perhaps influenced by the title of News Of The World’s fourth track ‘All Dead, All Dead’ – the lone dead man in the 1953 illustration was replaced by the four “dead” band members. Depicted looking curiously serene, the robot clutches the lifeless Brian May and Freddie Mercury, while John Deacon and Roger Taylor fall to the ground, with Taylor only visible on the original gatefold sleeve’s rear cover.
The story continues to unfold on the record’s inner sleeve, wherein the robot is depicted smashing through the rooftop of a circular auditorium. It’s seen reaching inside and making a grab for the petrified crowd, who attempt to flee from their impending doom. This (arguably less aggressive) inner sleeve artwork was also pressed up as an alternate front cover for copies of the album sold by US chain store Kmart, and again for the 1978 South Korean pressing of News Of The World, which came with a two-page insert including a write-up on Queen (in Korean) and the song lyrics printed in English.
The iconic News Of The World artwork has gone on to enjoy a remarkable afterlife. In the US, Queen’s record label commissioned an eye-catching billboard and devised a mocked-up newspaper fanzine during the album’s promotional campaign, while the robot’s image was emblazoned upon T-shirts and tour programmes during the hugely acclaimed 46-date News Of The World tour spanning October 1977 through to May ’78.
Coming full circle, Queen + Adam Lambert continue to perform a selection from News Of The World in their current live set, which concludes, as most Queen shows have since 1977, with the classic pairing of ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘We Are The Champions’. For the band’s current tour, designer Mark Hough even succeeded in bringing the giant robot (now christened Frank, by Brian May, in honour of Kelly Freas) to life in thrilling, cutting-edge 3D. The new technology available allows him to smash his fist through the stage, peer through the hole he’s made and then lift the wall up to reveal the band as they crash into opening number ‘We Will Rock You’. It’s a fitting intro to one of the greatest rock’n’roll shows on the planet.
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News Of The World indisputably remains one of the most enduring titles in Queen’s iconic catalogue.
The 17 November release of the 40th-anniversary edition of News Of The World, bolstered with Raw Sessions, a whole CD’s worth of previously unheard outtakes, is full of surprises, even long-term Queen aficionados will glean a great deal of additional insight into how the band came to create something so timeless in the first place.
News Of The World was recorded across the summer of 1977, with the sessions commencing within weeks of the band playing two massive, sold-out shows at London’s Earls Court at the end of their extensive A Day At The Races world tour.
Queen, however, were on a roll creatively and they spent much of July and August ’77 locked away with Mike Stone, who assisted Queen with production duties at two London studios, SARM West and Wessex – the latter venue also responsible for hot-housing Never Mind The Bollocks… Here’s The Sex Pistols during that same summer.
With the exception of a blistering US-sourced live take of Brian May’s, Cream-esque blues-rock workout ‘Sleeping On The Sidewalk’, the Raw Sessions disc includes alternate studio takes of all the News Of The World songs. Between-song jokes and chat suggest the mood was upbeat during the sessions, while this fascinating bonus disc provides a valuable insight into how Queen shaped – and sometimes radically altered – the arrangements of some of their most epochal tracks.
News Of The World, of course, opens with two stone-cold classics, ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘We Are The Champions’. On Raw Sessions, both are close to their imperious best: ‘We Will Rock You’’s bulldozer beat and terrace chant potential are present and correct, with an alternative guitar solo that screams to be blasted out loud, while ‘We Are The Champions’ already sounds invincible; here it’s granted a full-length fade, with rippling piano, a final drum fill from Roger Taylor and an animated Freddie Mercury exclaiming, “That’s exactly how it should be!”
Perhaps acknowledging the times, punky aggression bleeds into the Taylor-penned ‘Sheer Heart Attack’, but the released version seems refined compared to Raw Sessions’ Original Rough Mix of the track, which pushes the already belligerent guitar riffs way past 11, but arrives minus the vocal track. The elegant arrangement of May’s mournful, yet elegant piano ballad ‘All Dead, All Dead’ is already in place, but the Raw Sessions take is simply revelatory, as (for reasons undisclosed to date), it features a consummate Freddie Mercury lead vocal, unveiling a take of the song that reputedly only Queen’s closest confidants ever previously knew existed.
Though compelling, Queen’s Raw Sessions performances of John Deacon’s soaring, aspirational ‘Spread Your Wings’ and Roger Taylor’s tough, ballsy rocker ‘Fight From The Inside’ are faithful to their better-known counterparts, and they’re both ready to roll save for a cursory polish, production-wise. Ditto a sturdy take of Brian May’s shape-throwing rocker ‘It’s Late’, which remains a showcase for Queen at their arena-slaying best, and an immaculate run-through of Freddie Mercury’s jazzy, after-hours ballad ‘My Melancholy Blues’, both of which are finely honed and have already clearly nailed their nuances.
The two tracks from News Of The World’s second side deemed worthy of further honing, however, are Freddie Mercury’s suggestive ‘Get Down, Make Love’ and John Deacon’s ‘Who Needs You’. In its early incarnation, the innuendo-laden ‘Get Down…’ is devoid of Taylor’s strident roto tom fills and Brian May’s mesmerising, psychedelic wash of guitar FX which dominates much of the song’s latter third on the original album release. Showcased in stripped-down acoustic form on Raw Sessions, the laidback ‘Who Needs You’, meanwhile, glories in its pre-makeover arrangement without Taylor’s drum kit and mixes Mercury’s vocal dead-centre for a change.
Raw Sessions, then, offers a whole new perspective on the creation of one of rock’s magnum opuses. But for anyone with even the vaguest of interest in Queen’s modus operandi, it’s an absolute must-hear.
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As if Queen hadn’t already marked themselves out as one of the most exciting live bands on the planet, 1977 saw them take North America by storm, and elevate themselves to a world-beating stadium act. They rocked you, and they were the champions – as this photo gallery of their 1977 US tour shows.
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With punk going mainstream, Queen recorded their News Of The World album in record speed – no small feat, considering that the album included two of their biggest anthems, ‘We Are The Champions’ and ‘We Will Rock You’, released together as the first cuts from the record.
The latter came to Brian May in a dream, and he later recalled writing it to “create a song that the audience could participate in”. Yet despite the song’s instantly recognisable rhythm – tailor-made for stadiums the world over – it didn’t actually feature any drums. Instead, the band, their engineers, roadies, and even their tea lady, recorded the backbeat of the song by stomping their feet in the studio.
This gallery (click the band image above) captures Queen at a time when they were on the verge of US domination, while the newly released Raw Sessions versions for both ‘We Are The Champions’ and ‘We Will Rock You’ take a look behind the scenes at the creation of two masterpieces, revealing two never-before-heard takes on the undisputable Queen classics.
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With the cheers of the ecstatic Jubilee crowd at Earls Court in June 1977 still ringing in their ears, Queen prepared to create their sixth studio album. Booking time in Basing Street and Wessex Studios across July and August, with Mike Stone as their assistant producer, a decision was made to return to the “rootsier” sound of their first three recordings for what would become News Of The World. Even so, the album would still be embellished with rich multi-tracked arrangements, and all the molasses and razor blade textures that guitarist Brian May could muster.
With Freddie Mercury as the main conduit, the Queen approach was now as singular as anything in classic rock. There’s the glamour of David Bowie, the pyrotechnics and outrageous ambition of Jimi Hendrix, the sonic brute force of Led Zeppelin, along with the audacious harmonic élan of The Beatles and The Beach Boys; it was topped off with Mercury’s extraordinary charisma, whether in front of a microphone or sat at the piano. While it was at odds with his everyday modesty and reticence, it gave Queen a sonic palette quite unlike anyone else.
Significantly, the band were now adept at transforming their arena or stadium sound onto tape, and each member was contributing more. In the creative stakes, both bassist, John Deacon, and drummer, Roger Taylor, were “key-players”.
The honour of opening proceedings on the new album went to Brian, and what an opening it is. ‘We Will Rock You’ is the ultimate anthemic rock track with its stomping, clapping arrangement, beating a virtual a cappella tattoo (no bass and drums were harmed in the making of this particular track, though an alternative faster version with full band was also recorded). The ensemble’s backing vocals meshed perfectly with Mercury’s rallying cry, lead vocal, and May’s triple tape-looped guitar.
The genesis of the idea possibly came from an audience response when they played the Bingley Hall, Stafford, a few months earlier. May recalled the crowd dragging them back for an encore by singing the football hymn ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and the undiluted emotion and spontaneity of that event inspired this and ‘We Are The Champions’. Needless to say, both would be adopted as terrace chants and have been used on countless sporting events, both in stadiums and on our TV screens.With overdubs and delay, ‘We Will Rock You’ provided a two-minute adrenalin overdose that delighted and stunned listeners who dropped stylus on News Of The World for the very first time on 28 October 1977. From the opening track, the album was made immediate, while the song itself became an essential addition to Queen’s gigs.
It’s followed by the natural accompaniment, ‘We Are The Champions’. Mercury’s power ballad, as revolutionary as any weapon in contemporary punk rock circles, threw down the gauntlet. It was chosen as the A-side to ‘We Will Rock You’ upon release as a single, three weeks prior to the album’s unveiling. In 2011 it was voted the catchiest pop song of all time by a team of academics at Goldsmith’s College in London. The scientists observed thousands of volunteers to find out why certain songs inspired unabashed wedding guests and clubbers to belt out their favourites in public. You only have to hum this in your head and you’ll be reacting like Pavlov’s Dog.
The academics concluded that sing-along hits had four key elements: long and detailed musical phrases, multiple pitch changes in a song’s ‘hook’, male vocalists and higher male voices making a noticeable vocal effort. To bring matters full circle ‘… Champions’ was used as the official theme song for the 1994 FIFA World Cup, held in the United States.
Back to the track! If it was written as a conscious effort to involve the audience in the show, it worked to perfection. With Freddie providing a complex and jazzy piano part, reflected by four- and five-part vocal harmonies, along with an outrageously tricky lead line that’s belted out in rock form, as well as an operatic falsetto, the attention to detail belies the apparently visceral nature of the emotion. The bottom line was sales that have reached five-million-plus with the single peaking at No.4 in the US and No.2 in the UK.
The next track, ‘Sheer Heart Attack’, was semi-complete, but not finished in time for the 1974 album of the same name. Written by Roger, who sang lead on the demo, the band tinkered with the arrangement and decided Freddie was better suited to the main vocal, with Roger on back up. Still, this was Taylor’s baby, lyrically updated to provide a veiled riposte to the new wavers, who cast aspersions on the older guard. His rhythm guitar and bass were pre-eminent with Brian adding some vibrant riffs.
The intriguing ‘All Dead, All Dead’, a song by Brian, puzzled, with a lyric that includes the lines “You know my little friend’s all dead” and “I am old but still a child”. In fact, the doomy tone was part inspired by the death of a much-loved family cat! May himself sings and provides the lovely piano.
John Deacon brought ‘Spread Your Wings’ to the summer sessions: a smart rock ballad that kept the four musicians on their toes with the writer’s acoustic guitar providing the melody to Mercury’s narrative. An unusual choice for a single, given the downbeat tenor of the lyric, it peaked at No.34 in the UK with the instrumental outro trimmed for radio purposes. It would reappear in 1979 as the flip to ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’, a US chart-topper and the band’s final 45rpm of the 70s.
Roger Taylor’s ‘Fight From The Inside’ was described by Rolling Stone magazine as “like a slogan fired from a machine gun”, and a call for “a junta” crossed with an examination of punk sociology; later, Slash from Guns N’ Roses cited the jangling riff as an all-time high. As on ‘Sheer Heart Attack’, Roger borrowed John Deacon’s bass and pretty much delivered the piece as a solo effort.
On the second side of the original record, Freddie’s ‘Get Down, Make Love’ is an edgy, sensual, psychedelic powerhouse of a tune that is almost a throwback to Queen’s club days, though now expanded upon to emerge as a future stage favourite, with plenty of room for a drum solo. But if that is classic Queen with all the ingredients, ‘Sleeping On The Sidewalk’ is quite a departure from their deliberately Anglo style. Brian May handles the tune like a Texan bluesman, with his witty lyric conjuring up a tale of wannabe trumpet player who goes from rags to riches and back again. A sly insight into the music business and its tendency to fashion talent, this has often been likened to ZZ Top and Eric Clapton.
John’s ‘Who Needs You’ is another departure from the norm, with cowbell, maracas and Spanish guitar, while May’s ‘It’s Late’ is a bluesy three-part narrative concerning the woes of the road. The guitarist employs a hammering or tapping technique, which he credits to Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, who probably lifted the idea from T-Bone Walker. Released as an edited single in some territories (not in the UK), the song was much-loved by Kurt Cobain and can be heard on the soundtrack to the acclaimed documentary Kurt Cobain: About A Son, in between tracks by Arlo Guthrie and Cheap Trick.
Freddie’s ‘My Melancholy Blues’ is the perfect closer and many a romantic Queen fan’s most-loved song. An intoxicating jazzy piano blues, reminiscent of a smoky nightclub entertainer, a fantasy combination of Hoagy Carmichael and Ella Fitzgerald perhaps, this throws some moody stardust round the studio and features Mercury at his absolute best.
Three weeks before News Of The World landed in stores Queen were back on tour. They kicked off with an almost hush-hush West End concert at the then recently renovated New London on the corner of Covent Garden’s Drury Lane and Parker Street. Famed for links to music hall, and musical drama in general, this was the ideal venue in which to shoot the famous video clip for ‘We Are The Champions’ and a select fan club audience were treated to one of the last up close and intimate dates in Queen’s career.
In November, the band departed for North America with the album about to hit No.3. There would be memorable triumphs at Detroit’s Cobo Hall, legendary crucible for the rockiest acts on the planet, a return to Madison Square Garden, and a trip out West to Nevada and California. Christmas was spent back in Britain, no doubt pondering the impact of the Los Angeles Times’ review, one that complimented them on producing the “most spectacularly staged and finely honed show yet”.
The news was out. The world was waiting and didn’t we just love the Queen’s Jubilee year of 1977.