In 1980, ‘The Game’ became Queen’s biggest hit album in America, yet the record’s success ushered in a dramatic fall in popularity
If you were living in New York City in 1980 and listening to the urban radio station WBLS-FM, there was a good chance you were hearing some of the popular soul hits of the time. And 1980 was a really good year for R&B music, highlighted by such songs as “Rock With You” by Michael Jackson; “Let’s Get Serious” by Michael’s brother Jermaine; “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” by the S.O.S. Band; “Master Blaster Jammin’” by Stevie Wonder; and Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out.”
On WBLS’ playlist that same year was a hard-hitting disco/funk song called “Another One Bites the Dust” by a group called Queen. Its sound was very reminiscent of the then-recent Chic hit “Good Times,” thanks to its memorable melodic bass line and funky rhythm guitar. Along with a crisp drum beat and a taut vocal performance that mimicked American street vernacular, “Another One Bites the Dust” was a huge crossover smash on both the R&B and pop charts, where it peaked at No. 1 in the latter category and stayed there for three weeks in the fall of 1980.
Without any knowledge of who Queen was, a casual listener might have assumed that the band was a black American disco act — not a white British band known for stadium rock anthems. So why in the world was this group — whose biggest hit five years earlier was the eccentric rock opus “Bohemian Rhapsody” — performing this style of music, just as the “disco sucks” movement was taking hold of America?
Then again, Queen defined its career by doing the unexpected, which the band certainly did upon the release of its eighth record, The Game, on June 30, 1980. The most accessible and pop-oriented record in the band’s discography, The Game was Queen’s biggest commercial hit studio album in America thanks to its two No. 1 hits — the aforementioned “Another One Bites the Dust” and the rockabilly-sounding “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Yet the album’s success also marked the end of one chapter of Queen’s history and ushered in the band’s dramatic fall in popularity in the U.S. for most of the 80s — even as Queen remained huge in other parts of the world.
“I always thought there was an instant where we were the biggest thing in the world,” said Queen guitarist Brian May on the radio program In the Studio With Redbeard. “‘Another One Bites the Dust’ sort of clinched it because it suddenly crossed over to the black R&B market. Suddenly instead of a million albums, we were [selling] three or four million albums. And at that time, that was about as much as anyone had ever done. This was before the days of Thriller where things got totally out of hand. But it was big. I don’t think we realized things would be any different. We were kind of spoiled by that point.”
Prior to recording the album that would become The Game, Queen — May, singer Freddie Mercury, drummer Roger Taylor, and bassist John Deacon — grew into a major rock act since its formation in 1970. With each new album showcasing its brand of progressive and glitter rock, the band attracted audiences in both the U.K. and America. Then in 1975, the single “Bohemian Rhapsody,” off of the band’s definitive record, A Night at the Opera, blew the doors wide open. This nearly six-minute rock epic with its enigmatic lyrics and wacky ‘opera’ section spent a then-amazing nine-week run at No. 1 on the British chart; it also peaked at No. 9 in America.
More hit albums (1976's A Day at the Races and 1977's News of the World) and singles (“Somebody to Love,” “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions”) followed. In 1978, Queen released the very brash-sounding Jazz album, an occasion marked by two memorable events. As part of the promotion for the album’s double A-single, “Bicycle Race/Fat Bottomed Girs,” Queen mounted an event at Wembley Stadium that featured a bevy of nude female models riding bikes. The other was the infamous Halloween party in New Orleans to celebrate the launch of the Jazz record. With a guest list of more than 400 people, the bacchanalia featured strippers, groupies, mud-wrestlers, drag artists, and a jazz band. It was rock & roll excess at its finest, reinforcing Queen’s image as an unstoppable and confident musical juggernaut.
While it certainly won over fans, Queen had a harder time with the music critics. Perhaps the most vicious volley thrown at the band came from Rolling Stone writer Dave Marsh in his review of Jazz from the February 8, 1979 issue of the magazine:
“Whatever its claims, Queen isn’t here just to entertain. This group has come to make it clear exactly who is superior and who is inferior. Its anthem, “We Will Rock You,” is a marching order: you will not rock us, we will rock you. Indeed, Queen may be the first truly fascist band. The whole thing makes me wonder why anyone would indulge these creeps and their polluting ideas.”
In fairness, Roger Taylor admitted there were aspects of the Jazz album — despite containing the hits “Fat Bottomed Girls,” “Bicycle Race,” and “Don’t Stop Me Now” — that were mixed. “We felt Jazz was not one of our finest hours,” he told The Billboard Book of Number One Albums. “It had its moments, but on the whole, it was rather unsatisfying.”
Although its foundation was in hard rock — characterized by very elaborate production values, complex multi-layered vocal harmonies, May’s majestic, orchestral-sounding guitar, and Mercury’s over the-top-vocals — Queen broke from formula on a few occasions by dabbling into other genres: blues (“See What a Fool I’ve Been”); metal (“Stone Cold Crazy”); folk (‘39); 1920s swing (“Bring Back That Leroy Brown”); jazz (“My Melancholy Blues”); Caribbean (“Who Needs You”); and punk (“Sheer Heart Attack”). In retrospect, “We Will Rock You” could be considered one of the earliest examples of rap-rock. With each new record and single, Queen was venturing into pop-friendly territory away from its progressive and glam rock beginnings.
That direction towards a more mainstream pop sound, augmented by the band’s desire for a change of scenery, took shape in the summer of 1979, when Queen relocated to Munich to record at Musicland Studios, founded by the producer Giorgio Moroder. The prominent artists who recorded at Musicland included Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, T. Rex and Deep Purple. It was there that Queen began a working relationship with the German producer/engineer Reinhold Mack (simply known as Mack), who was known for engineering several of Electric Light Orchestra’s finest records from the 1970s, including Face the Music, A New World Record, and Out of the Blue.
“I think Mack secretly had wanted to work with us for a long time,” May told In the Studio With Redbeard. “He had all these things that he wanted to try with us. And he was very good at getting drum sounds very quick. There was a drum booth and he used to have drums miked inside and outside, so he would stick up a few faders, and the drums would sound crisp and big without sounding washy.”
One of the first new Queen tracks recorded in Musicland was “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” a song that Freddie Mercury reportedly wrote while taking a bath at the Hilton in Munich; he went into the studio with Deacon and Taylor to work on it. “We arranged the song at band rehearsals the following day with me trying to play the rhythm guitar,” said Mercury, as quoted in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. “Everyone loved it so we recorded it. The finished version sounded like the bathroom version. It’s not typical of my work, but that’s because nothing is typical of my work.
“Crazy Little Thing Called Love” was not like anything Queen had ever recorded before, as this likeable and catchy rockabilly track was in the vein of Elvis Presley. This relaxed and loose back-to-basics production eschewed the usual overdubbed instrumentation and vocals that Queen had perfected on previous recordings. For “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” Mercury downplayed his usual dramatic vocals and went for a croon that paid homage to Presley. Also notably on the track, May didn’t play his famous ‘Red Special’ guitar but rather a Telecaster that he borrowed from Taylor.
“I was very quick, had everything set up in pretty much no time,” recalled Mack in the Days of Our Lives documentary. “And they put it down. And then the best bit was, ‘Quickly, let’s finish it before Brian gets here, otherwise it takes a little longer.’”
The song prompted the band’s British label EMI to issue it a single, even though Queen was still working on its new album. In keeping with the song’s 50s theme, a promotional video was filmed for “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” featuring the band sporting leather jackets, along with male and female dancers. The single peaked at No. 2 on the British charts but did even better in the States where it became No. 1 on February 23, 1980.
“We were still making the record… and we were going out in Munich, and somebody came up and said, ‘It’s gone to number one in America,’” Taylor remembered years later. “We were going, ‘Yeah! More drinks!’”
“I love it now as I did then, but it’s easy to love the things that bring you money,” Mercury once said. “I’m a loving person. Love was the inspiration for the song.”
That first session with Mack between June and July 1979 also produced three other songs — two Brian May power ballads, “Save Me” (“I wrote about it for a friend,” he told In the Studio, “someone who was going through a bad time, and I imagined myself in their shoes kind of telling the story” ) and “Sail Away Sweet Sister” and a Roger Taylor rocker titled “Coming Soon.”
Queen then embarked on the Crazy Tour that took the band to smaller venues in the U.K. during November and December of 1979. Afterwards, Queen resumed work on The Game at Musicland in February 1980. By this time, the band and its crew divided their schedule between recording and partaking in the city’s nightlife, particularly at a club called the Sugar Shack. The Shack would even be referenced in one of the songs on the record, the May-penned “Dragon Attack,” a muscular mix of rock, funk and rap all into one.
“Being in a different place did stimulate us,” Taylor said of Queen’s time in Munich. “We were very much influenced by what was going on in the clubs. A lot of that was assimilated and put into the record.”
If “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” was a deliberate stylistic break by embracing rock & roll’s past, then the use of a synthesizer for the first time on a Queen album was a signal towards the future — a move that finally broke the group’s famous ‘no synths’ rule of the past seven albums. “I’m afraid that was my fault. I’d bought this Oberheim polyphonic synth,” Taylor was quoted as saying in Mark Blake’s book Is This The Real Life? “I showed it to Fred, and immediately he was like, “Oh, this is good, dear…” While the synths didn’t overwhelm the album entirely, they would certainly become more prominent on subsequent Queen records throughout the 80s.
There would be other musical divergences that emerged during The Game sessions. Like it did on “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” the sound of the 50s also infiltrated Mercury’s cautionary “Don’t Try Suicide,” a blend of doo-wop, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard thanks to its popping bass line and rollicking piano. And at a time when New Wave and power pop were in vogue during the late 70s and early 80s, Queen borrowed something from those genres, too — from Deacon’s uptempo “Need Your Loving Tonight,” to Taylor’s manic “Rock It (Prime Jive),” in which the drummer also sang mostly the lead vocals.
Despite the new stylistic flourishes, the music on The Game was still technically rock &roll. However, the Deacon-written “Another One Bites the Dust,” was something out of left field as it borrowed heavily from funk. There’s no question that song was influenced by Chic’s “Good Times.” “John Deacon was sitting right next to me when ‘Good Times’ was recorded,” Chic guitarist/co-producer Nile Rodgers told Spin in 1997. It wasn’t Queen’s first foray into funk music — that distinction belonged to a track called written by Roger Taylor called “Fun It” from the Jazz album two years earlier. “Another One Bites the Dust,” however, would later eclipse that song and became — to borrow the pun — a game-changer for the band.
“To ‘bite the dust’ is a cowboy phrase,” Deacon once said in a 1981 interview with radio host Mary Turner for Westwood One, “and that’s all I had at first, just the line. When we went into the studio, I had a set of lyrics that nobody has ever seen… they were all about cowboys. When we recorded it, in Munich, we did the backing track — it was a bit heavier, whereas the cowboy thing was a little bit more lighthearted and humorous. So I decided to change the lyrics.”
With Deacon’s melodic bass riff, Taylor’s dry drum sounds, some sonic effects, and a taut and masterful vocal performance by Mercury, “Another One Bites the Dust” really had the makings of a potential hit. And like “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” the song doesn’t feature the typical heavy Brian May guitar solo in the middle but instead featured tasty funky rhythm guitar playing towards the end.
“Freddie got deeply into it,” May recalled in the Days of Our Lives documentary. “Freddie sort of sang it until he bled, because he was so committed it making it sound the way John wanted it, which was like hardcore… kind of more towards black music than white music.”
In the end, what would come out of Munich was a very eclectic yet still cohesive and satisfying album in The Game. In his book Is This The Real Life?, Mark Blake pointed out: “The Game skipped through power ballads, heavy rock, disco, pop and rockabilly on its first side alone.” Yet it wasn’t all harmonious behind the scenes due to the competitive friction within the band, something that Mercury once described as “four cocks fighting.” “There were huge rows on the studio,” Taylor said, as quoted in Is This the Real Life? “Usually over how long Brian was taking… or whether he was having an omelette. We drove each other nuts.”
“We went through a bad period in Munich” May told MOJO in 1999. “We struggled bitterly with each other. I remember John saying I didn’t play the kind of guitar he wanted on his songs. We all tried leave the band more than once. But then we’d come back to the idea that the band was greater than any of us. It was more enduring than most of our marriages.”
On June 30, 1980, The Game was released, featuring a photograph of the band on the record cover for the first time since 1974's Sheer Heart Attack album. In his Sept. 18, 1980 review of The Game for Rolling Stone, Steve Pond wrote: “Whatever the reasons, it’s nice to hear a Queen album with songs, not anthems.” He also added: “…The Game is less obnoxious than Queen’s last few outings, simply because it’s harder to get annoyed with a group that’s plugging away at bad rockabilly than with one blasting out crypto-nazi marching tunes… No matter how much Queen may try hide it, they’re still egomaniacs.”
Not that the negative review hurt The Game, as it went to No. 1 in September of that year and remained there for five weeks. “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” which also appeared on The Game, had already been released and topped the pop chart. Two more singles from the album followed — first, May’s power ballad “Save Me,” which was accompanied by a video that was one of the earliest examples of the merger of live action/animation. Then came Mercury’s “Play the Game,” which only peaked at number 42 and didn’t make a dent.
Amazingly “Another Bites the Dust” wasn’t initially considered to be a single — according to Mack, the track barely made it onto the album. And it might have remained in obscurity had it not been for the intervention of a famous Queen fan named Michael Jackson. Hot off his hit album Off the Wall, Jackson was hanging around backstage at a Queen show at the Forum in Los Angeles and reportedly offered some advice to the band. “I remember Michael and some of his brothers in the dressing room going on and on about ‘Another One Bites the Dust,’” said Taylor. “They kept saying we must release it as a single.”
Jackson wasn’t the only one who saw the song as a potential hit. In America, the R&B stations, particularly WBLS-FM in New York, started playing it. “It’s kind of hearsay from my point of view,” said May in Greatest Video Hits I, “but apparently most of those black DJs who were playing it thought we were a black group and thought that Freddie was black.”
Eventually, “Another One Bites the Dust” was released as a single and went to number one on October 4, 1980, holding at that position for three weeks. Since then, “Another One Bites the Dust” remains the band’s most commercially successful single in America. “I had no idea that it would ever be a single,” Taylor told Absolute Radio in 2011.
In an interview with Rolling Stone’s James Henke in 1981, Deacon said: “I’m the only one in the group, really, who likes American black music… we had arguments whether “Bites the Dust” should be a single. In the end, it began attracting a lot of attention on black stations and in discos, so the record company wanted to put it out. But it would never been chosen as a single by the group as a whole.”
Another Deacon song, “Need Your Loving Tonight,” was released as a single from The Game and climbed to only number 44 — but it didn’t really matter at that point. The Game was the band’s biggest selling studio album in America; as of this writing, it has sold 4 million copies. With the record’s success and another U.S. tour that included a three-night stand at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Queen solidified its popularity in America.
But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Around the same period The Game was being recorded, Queen worked on the soundtrack for the Dino De Laurentiis-produced movie Flash Gordon, a campy adaptation of the comic strip. A project largely shepherded by May, the mostly instrumental album was more in the vein of the dramatic Queen rock sound, albeit augmented by synthesizers, and yielded the memorable single “Flash.”
In 1981, the band mounted a South American tour that took them to Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela as well as Mexico. Further adding to a spectacular period for the band was the release of Greatest Hits, which featured “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Save Me” and “Play the Game” from The Game. That compilation album amassed over five million sales in the U.K.; in the U.S. it has sold eight million copies.
“America is a place where we grew up,” said May in a 2011 interview. “We sort of owned America at one point, when we had ‘We Will Rock You,’ ‘We Are The Champions.’ They were bigger hits there than they were here, and ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ was an enormous hit, and I think there was a moment where we were not only the biggest group in America, but probably the biggest in the world. A lot of people have that moment, but we had that moment at a certain time.”
But Queen wasn’t able to maintain the momentum much longer and began a precipitous decline in popularity in the U.S., starting with the band’s next studio album, 1982's Hot Space. Co-produced by the band and Mack, the record was proof of the old adage: ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ With the huge success of “Another One Bites the Dust,” Queen continued to mine the disco/funk sound not just for one song, but for an entire album’s side on Hot Space. The timing to compose and write songs in that particular style went against the disco backlash in America during the early 1980s. Hot Space was a divisive record for those Queen fans who wanted a return to the band’s earlier hard rock sound, even though side two of the album featured several rockers, including the now-classic duet with David Bowie, “Under Pressure.”
“I feel that I was not alone with my dissatisfaction,” recalled Susan Mitcham-Magro, who saw Queen at the Boston Garden in 1982 during the Hot Space tour. “What originally drew me to Queen seemed like it was replaced with a more disco feel.”
Not only did Hot Space drew a mixed reaction from fans but also some of the band members. “I think Hot Space was a mistake, if only timing wise,” May said in 1989. We got heavily into funk and it was quite similar to what Michael Jackson did on Thriller. But the timing was wrong. Disco was a dirty word.”
Despite Hot Space’s lackluster music and sales, Queen went on the road to promote the album. The band performed several of Hot Space’s funk songs but with more of a hard rock feel, especially tracks such as “Staying Power” and “Action This Day.” At one point Mercury told the audience during a show at the Milton Keynes Bowl in 1982 (later released as Queen on Fire in 2004): “Now most of you know that we got some new sounds out in the last week. For what it’s worth, we’re gonna do a few songs in the funk black category, whatever you call it. That doesn’t mean we’ve lost our rock & roll feel, okay! I mean it’s only a bloody record! People get so excited about these things. We just want to try out a few new sounds.”
Queen played the U.S. one more time, and its show on September 15, 1982 at L.A.’s Forum would be the last time the original four members performed together onstage in the States. “Freddie wouldn’t go back to tour America unless they were touring a hit,” said Queen’s manager Jim Beach in Days of Our Lives. “And of course that’s a chicken and an egg — because the less you tour America, the more you lose America.”
“It was a very sad thing,” said May, “and suddenly the rest of the world was calling us. Suddenly we all went out and did stadiums… in South America, in Europe, in Australia, in Japan, but America was not calling us and so you tend to go where you are called and I remember Freddie saying ‘I’ll probably have to fucking die before America wants us.’”
For the next nine years, Queen didn’t have a Top 10 hit on the American charts; Taylor’s “Radio Ga Ga” from 1984's The Works climbed up to only number 16. The band’s fortunes in the U.S. were further hampered by the video for “I Want to Break Free,” in which the members dressed up in drag as a parody of the popular British soap opera Coronation Street. MTV reacted by banning the clip. “I remember being out on promotion and people being so shocked. I remember presenters going white and not wanting to be a part of that, how could rock stars do this?” said May in 2011.
In addition, the reaction towards Mercury’s appearance —characterized by his shorter hair and his thick mustache, compared to the previous years of Zandra Rhodes outfits, longer hair, and black-polished nails— prompted audience members to throw razor blades onstage. As Mikal Gimore wrote in Rolling Stone in 2014: “They didn’t like this identity of Mercury — what they perceived as a brazenly gay rock & roll hero — and they wanted him to shed it.”
Meanwhile, Queen racked up more hits and mounted tours in other parts of the world during the rest of the ‘80s, highlighted by the group’s memorable performance at Live Aid in 1985. Sadly, the revival of Queens’ popularity in America began after Mercury’s death from complications due to AIDS in 1991, thanks in large part to the inclusion of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the film Wayne’s World. With the band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2001, and its music becoming a regular staple in commercials and film, Queen reentered Americans’ consciousness. Then, with May and Taylor at the helm, Queen returned to tour America in 2005–2006 with Paul Rodgers; and then with Adam Lambert in 2014.
While it doesn’t have the artistic cache of previous triumphs like A Night at the Opera, Queen II, and Sheer Heart Attack, The Game remains a cornerstone album for the band thanks to “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust.” Both of those songs had been staples of Queen’s live set list throughout the 80s and even during the band’s recent reunion tours since Mercury’s death. In addition, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” has been covered by the likes of Dwight Yoakam, Juice Newton, Diana Ross, Maroon 5, Josh Kelley and Michael Buble — while “Another One Bites the Dust” has been remixed by Wyclef Jean for the movie Small Soldiers, and sampled by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.”
Retrospective reviews of The Game have been kinder since Steve Pond’s piece in Rolling Stone from 1980. On its 1992 and 2004 album guides, the magazine gave the record three stars — reviewer Mark Coleman described “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust” in the 1992 edition of the guide as “songs proved to be the first consistently listenable Queen opuses.”
“The album is fun, funky, stripped down, inclusive, intimate, and at times sympathetically tender — qualities made all the more generous by Mercury’s ascendant rock godhood, the result being Queen’s first and only number-one album in America,” wrote Jason Heller for the A.V. Club. “It also gleefully violates fascism’s defining principles: It couldn’t care less about discipline or order. The Game played the game — and it won, not by its own rules, but by rejecting rules altogether.”
And in a 4.5-starred review, Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic.com wrote of The Game: “…it finds Queen turning decidedly, decisively pop, and it’s a grand, state-of-the-art circa 1980 pop album that still stands as one of the band’s most enjoyable records.” However, Erlewine added this caveat: “…the very fact that it does showcase a band that’s turned away from rock and toward pop means that for some Queen fans, it marks the end of the road, and despite the album’s charms, it’s easy to see why.”
It wouldn’t until be 1991's Innuendo, the last studio album released during Mercury’s lifetime, that Queen made a return to its majestic hard rock sound of the 70s. But the fact that the band went for quite something artistically different and fresh with The Game was a brave and ballsy move that distinguished the group from its arena-rock peers. In a historic career marked by highlights such as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Live Aid, and the South American and Magic tours, The Game era of 1980 represented a magical period for Queen in America that would never be recaptured or repeated.
“We kind of became the biggest group in the world at that moment,” May said in Days of Our Lives. “It’s a fleeting moment because someone else will come in and take over. But for that moment, we kind of owned the world.”
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