83rd Favorite Album

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News of the World. Queen.
1977 Elektra. Producer: Queen
Purchased ca. 1997

News-Of-The-World

mouseIN A NUTSHELL – A 70s Rock record with much more on display than “70s Rock.” The band shares songwriting and musical duties, taking on a number of musical styles, and it tackles them all while displaying the characteristic “Queen Sound.” WOULD BE HIGHER IF – “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” weren’t on the album.
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I’ve been a sports fan since I was a little kid. My dad was somewhat of a high school sports star in the late 50s, excelling in both football and baseball for the Lebanon High Cedars. newspaper This was an era when local newspapers abounded, and since the digital age was a few decades away, you had to see the stories in print or miss them forever.1 So, my mom kept a shoebox of newspaper clippings of my dad’s athletic feats, chronicled in the Lebanon Daily News, and my sisters and I loved looking through that box to read all about a guy who seemed much cooler and more confident than the guy who lived with us. The clippings helped inspire me to play sports, as did my dad’s continued role in the community as a Teener Baseball coach, which also provided me the opportunity to be a batboy surrounded by men of 13, 14 and 15 years old.

batboy 1

My family was a family of sports fans.2 We loved the Philadelphia Phillies, a passion that originated with my mom’s mom, Gram Bender, who watched and listened to games religiously until her death in 1991. We were huge Penn State Football fans, as well, watching the games on TV on autumn Saturdays, and reliving them again on The Penn julieState Football Highlight Show, with Ray Scott and George Paterno, the next morning before church. And while my sisters weren’t encouraged to play sports (after all, this was real-life 70s in rural PA – not an American Girl story set in 70s San Francisco) it was expected that I would play.

So I played football, basketball and baseball, and enjoyed (nearly) every second of it. 3

Here’s a picture of me in my Ebenezer Midget Football practice uniform, ca. 1976. Note that the uniform appears to have originally been bought by the organization ca. 1956, at the Dawn of the Facemask.

The fabric of these pants was likely carcinogenic. Luckily I only wore them for one season, after which the team bought new ones.

Here I am after I made the Ebenezer Midget Baseball team, also in 1976.

Believe it or not, this is how infielders were instructed to field grounders in 1976. I guess that Disco Dancing style affected everything.

Here’s a shot my mom took to “show off my number,” but which I’ve always thought of as the “pee on the tree” shot.
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But I hear you, dear reader. “So yeah, yeah. You liked sports, big deal. What’s the point? And will you ever write about the album?”

The point is, as deeply as I loved sports, I had several other interests as well. (And yes, this will tie into the album. I swear.) School, TV, making model cars, comedians … I also liked music – both listening to it and making it. My sisters and I were encouraged to play instruments, trombonesand we all took piano lessons and at least a little bit of a second instrument. I myself played the trombone from fourth through twelfth grade – played the concerts, marched in the parades, and performed at the football halftimes and the marching band competitions.

I had lots of interests, and it never occurred to me that some people would believe that certain interests were incompatible with others.

For example, music and sports.

Where I grew up – and there’s really no other way to say it – playing an instrument was thought of as “gay” for a boy, and being an athlete was thought of as “not gay.” gay band And while I think the term “gay” in this case meant simply “effeminate” or “weak,” and didn’t imply discernable sexual activities or appetites, I also believe that many struggling, closeted, self-loathing (and married) gay men in positions of authority existed (and probably still do) who looked to stamp out any perceived evidence of residual homosexuality in others in a pathetic attempt to crush some recurring seedlings of humanity within themselves, a humanity they couldn’t bear to allow to sprout, let alone flourish and thrive. In other words, lots of male coaches who should’ve just gone and blown some dude 4 instead of inflicting their internal dramas on kids who just wanted to both play music and play sports.

coach spikeOne such example may have been my freshman high school basketball coach, Coach Spike, a wee little man who – like many men in the early 1980s – attempted to pull off that Patented John Oates Look. As with many tiny men, he deflected attention from his small stature by trying to look and act both cool and tough. A youthful history teacher in his late 20s, he relished the fact that several people had at times mistaken him for a student at the school – mustache notwithstanding – but connected these misapprehensions only to his arch coolness, not to his schoolboy height.

As a fourteen year old freshman, I myself hadn’t played a lot of organized basketball. Back then, there weren’t today’s numbers of attempts by parents to amplify a child’s limited evidence of intrinsic athleticism into a modest leg-up on the competition for future University admissions by spending thousands of dollars to form “travel” youth sports leagues. I just played in the driveway with neighborhood friends, and a little bit at the YMCA. In both cases the fact that I was a bit taller than most of the other kids seemed to obviate any need for actual coaching.screech hoops5

So at basketball tryouts my freshman year, I lacked a lot of the polish of some of my teammates. However, I was rather tall, pretty athletic, and displayed a nerd’s gift for dutifully following instruction, so it wasn’t a surprise that I made the team. (My disdain for Coach Spike aside, he did know his sports and he was adept at coaching technique and skills.)

I didn’t play a whole lot in games, which was okay with me. I knew that others on the team were much better than me, and it was actually a relief to not have many opportunities to make a fool of myself during games. But I loved practices, and being part of a team, and I could tell that I was improving. Feeling pretty proud of my progress, I looked forward to being a part of next season’s JV team. After the last game of the season, the last of several blowout losses, a long-faced Coach Spike – weary from the losses and clearly not comprehending how his brilliant coaching could have been so mishandled by us sorry bunch of 14 year olds – gave a rambling speech about us boys as a team and as individuals, and what to expect in the years ahead.

I doubt if anyone else on the team remembers much of the speech, but I still remember one particular line. “Some of you guys really have a lot of high school basketball ahead of you. And some of you guys … well, you should just stick to the band …”

spongebob band

Let me state clearly here that out of 14 boys on the team, there was precisely ONE of us who was also in the band. I understood. He clearly meant to single me out to the team as both a) a lousy basketball player and b) a sissy musician probably lacking What It Takes to ever succeed. 6

This theme of sports and music as incompatible was repeated the following basketball beefseason when, as a sophomore on the JV team (having ignored Spike’s directive) I was told by my coach that the varsity football coach, a doofus called “Beef,” had asked him about me and my interest in playing football. I found this extremely exciting, being scouted for my athletic ability! Beef was also a (universally recognized awful excuse for a) Guidance Counselor at the school, and sure enough I was soon called to his office to “discuss my academic plans for eleventh grade.” {cough cough} We discussed no such topic. He immediately began quizzing me about my experience playing football. I don’t think I mentioned my carcinogenic pants, but I told him I’d played before. Beef also mentioned my JV coach’s strong assessment of my attitude and effort. “We’d love to have you play next season,” he said with a beefy smile.

“I’d like to,” I said. “Would I be able to also stay in the band?” I asked.

Beef immediately frowned, as if he’d just bitten into mealy apple. “Maybe for one year,” he said. “Maybe.” Then he chuckled, trying to invite me into a little joke of his. “I mean, you’d have you choose between band and football, though, right? Right?” I knew my parents really wanted me to stay in the band, and more than this I realized Beef was a jerk – a grown up version of all the teen-age jerks I knew. I decided to stick with the band.

trombone eric

So why bring this up in the context of Queen?

queen band 1

Well, it confuses me that so many people would find incompatibilities where they clearly do not exist. Musician and athlete are clearly compatible skills, as evidenced by NBA Champion/Tuba player Malik Rose; deceased NBA Forward/jazz bassist Wayman Tisdale; Guided by Voices genius/high school athletic hall of fame member Robert Pollard; or MLB Center Fielder/jazz guitarist Bernie Williams. Heck, Super Bowl kicker Steven Hauschka and former NCAA basketball hero (and Celtics bust) Pervis Ellison even played the trombone, just like yours truly did!!

But my frustration isn’t really with the single example of music and sports. It’s with people limiting themselves or (worse yet) others based on ideas not founded in reality. It’s with people carrying preconceived notions around with them and using them to randomly set boundaries. It’s with people choosing to never allow possibilities, to never say “Let’s see what happens,” or “Let’s give it a try” because they are halted by their own limited attitudes. brainI think people should widen their experiences and interests as much as possible. You’re a human being, with a brain with more computing power than it can ever use, that can comprehend and appreciate limitless sensory inputs. Why not push those limits and see what happens?

On the album News of the World, Queen explores their limits and succeeds in producing a record full of different song styles, with members taking on tasks outside the norm, allowing themselves to see what happens when, say, the drummer plays all the instruments and sings, or the lead singer sits out a song, or this Arena Rock Behemoth of a band takes on the blues or jazz or lite rock. And it works. Nobody said, “But you’re Queen. You can’t do that!” Or if they did, they were ignored. And that’s what I love about this album.

In the late nineties, I began to consider my CD collection, and I started to grow concerned that I had no albums from many Classic Rock acts I’d loved from radio play. Acts like The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Eric Clapton, The Eagles, Queen. So I went on a little purchasing spree of AOR staple acts. I had read an interview with Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash in which he expressed his appreciation of News of the World. So, seeing a copy at my favorite local record store, I decided this would be the place for me to start on my Queen shopping list.

queen 75Queen is one of the few acts in rock and roll, the few artists in any medium, probably, for whom the descriptor “bombastic” seems to be an understatement, yet who are brilliant precisely because of this grandiosity. It is a difficult perch on which to balance, and songs like the operatic “Bohemian Rhapsody” or the artsy, studio enhanced romp “Bicycle Race” likely cause some listeners to lose interest quickly. But News of the World demonstrates that there was a lot more to this band than over-the-top arena rock. Many think of the band as pretentious, over-produced 70s dinosaur rock.

To those people, I offer this selection from News of the World: “Sleeping on the Sidewalk.”

I’ve enjoyed playing the “Name the Artist” game on this one with friends over the years, and none have yet guessed correctly. While one-of-a-kind superstar Freddie Mercury doesn’t appear on the song at all, making it hard to guess the group, the piece does offer lots of what I really love about this record: the sound! I’m not an expert in sound engineering by any stretch of the imagination, but there is something about the way this record was recorded that seems to make each instrument ring out clearly, hyper-distinguishable.

Guitarist Brian May (who sings the song, brian mayabout the trials and tribulations of a professional musician, in an unruffled, blasé style) plays very crisply, even in this bluesy, raw recording, and his guitar has that crunchy hint of distortion that is easily identifiable. This guitar sound is heard throughout the record, and always draws me in. Another key aspect heard here, and throughout the album, is John Deacon’s bass. He has a very clear, neat sound that I can instantly recognize as the “John Deacon sound.” It’s not just the tone of the bass, but it’s also his style of throwing in extra notes and the percussive sounds of his fingers on the strings. For a song that doesn’t really sound like Queen, it sure sounds like Queen!

But maybe the bluesy stuff isn’t drawing you in, maybe you’re more of a punk rocker. You might enjoy this track, penned by drummer Roger Taylor (who also played rhythm guitar and bass on the song): “Sheer Heart Attack.”

It’s a punk-styled song, but the sound is certainly less raw than the contemporaneous punk music in 1977. The lyrics seem like they’re actually making fun of punk rockers. roger taylorAnd the flanged drum fill at 2:55 is nothing you’d ever hear on a Sex Pistols song. So it’s not really punk. But as an aggressive, driving rave-up, I think the song works. And it’s different from anything you might expect to hear on a Queen record.7

“But no,” you might say, “blues and punk doesn’t do it for me right now. I’m in more of a mellow, 70s light-rock mood, but with a Latin feel. I doubt there’s anything like that on the record.” And you would be wrong. How about “Who Needs You.”

This mellow song, written by bassist John Deacon, has great vocals from Mercury –freddie using his “indoor voice” this time, not the operatic flash typical of many familiar Queen songs. He sounds just the right level of hurt for Deacon’s “I Will Survive“-esque lyrics. Both Deaconjohn deacon and May play Spanish guitar on the song, throwing nice Latin runs into the background. May’s electric guitar, again featuring the distinctive “May sound,” adds wonderful color to the bridge, behind Mercury’s vocals. And his nylon-string acoustic solo is beautiful. Of course, the backing harmonies are tight and choir-like – a hallmark of the “Queen Sound” throughout their career.

But maybe 70s soft rock is still too modern-sounding for you. Maybe you prefer pop standards from the mid-twentieth century, crooned with a simple piano and bass arrangement. For you the band offers “My Melancholy Blues,” a Freddie Mercury solo number about, well, The Blues.

queen band 2

I don’t know a great detail about the inner workings of Queen, how the members got along, or how they created their songs. But the fact that the members switched instruments and shared roles says to me that they were a band who – at least for this one album – put their egos aside and let the music guide them. Many bands I admire had this same flexibility, with members switching roles easily: The Beatles, R.E.M. It demonstrates an openness, a lack of false boundaries.

football trumpetThey seem like people who wouldn’t have a problem with a trombone player being on the football or basketball team.

Queen sure didn’t have a problem with members’ multiple roles. Check out the song “Fight From the Inside,” written and performed entirely by drummer Taylor (with some lead guitar work by May, and backing vocals from May and Mercury.)

Taylor’s lyrics are, I think, meant to sort of inspire young people to stick up for themselves. It’s a straight ahead rocker, and demonstrates there’s a lot more to Taylor than simply drums and a pretty face.

As much as Queen is most identified with Freddie Mercury, and perhaps Brian May, may mercuryall members shared quite equally on the songwriting duties on News of the World. Bassist Deacon contributed one of my favorite tracks – a song about sticking up for yourself and chasing your dreams – “Spread Your Wings.”

It features everything I love about the Queen sound. Deacon’s bass, May’s guitar, Taylor’s cool drum fills, Mercury’s belting. May’s guitar solo in the final minute is subdued yet powerful. And by the way – how cool is it that Deacon wore a Chicago Blackhawks jacket for the video?8

queen leap

Guitarist Brian May wrote my two favorite songs on the album. The first is another rocker whose lyrics compress the ups and downs of romance into two verses, “It’s Late.”

Queen’s sonic bombast is on display here – Freddie’s flash, the multi-layered backing vocals, crushing drums, howling guitar – but it seems a bit muted somehow, reigned in, making the song seem more powerful to me. Deacon’s bass work is up and down the fret, but never ostentatious. May’s sound is May’s sound, and he plays a variety of solos throughout. The buildup to, and execution of, the “It’s late, it’s late, it’s late” chorus (for example, just around 2:55) can give me chills. And I love the middle jamming section from about 3:20 to 4:30. The song teeters on that sonic rock edge between Big and Too Big, and for me it leans the right way.

freddie deadMy co-favorite song is “All Dead, All Dead,” a sad song sung by May, and all the more touching given Mercury’s early death in 1991, at age 45.

(The fact that its lyrics are actually about Brian May’s boyhood cat doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of the song.)

May’s vocals are heartfelt, and his guitar work is subtle and interesting. As usual, Deacon’s bass support offers more than simply support, but features prominently in the composition.

News of the World – it must be said – features the smash hits “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions,” two of May and Mercury’s most famous songs, both of which certainly make the Jock Rock Hall Of Fame. I’ve heard these songs so much in my life that I’m now done with them. But they’re there if you’re interested!

queen last

This record makes me happy. It makes me happy to know that no “Coach Spike” ever told drummer Roger Taylor, “maybe you should stick to drums;” or told bassist John Deacon, “maybe you should stick to writing rock songs.” There was no “Beef” to tell Freddie Mercury and Brian May they’d have to make a choice between rock or jazz and blues. And the band rewarded all of us with songs for everyone – even songs that meathead coaches like Spike and Beef can forever appreciate.

TRACK LISTING
We Will Rock You
We Are the Champions
Sheer Heart Attack
All Dead, All Dead
Spread Your Wings
Fight From the Inside
Get Down, Make Love
Sleeping on the Sidewalk
Who Needs You
It’s Late
My Melancholy Blues

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4 Comments

Filed under Albums 90-81

4 Responses to 83rd Favorite Album

  1. Julia

    I loved queen as a kid – this was great!

  2. van

    where to start on this one E. brilliant connection between the space this band allows itself, and a broader commentary on the inherent space people need…to be people. gonna buy this album today…

  3. Anne

    I thoroughly enjoy this entry – both the music and also the commentary on your (and many of our) experiences of being pigeonholed by others’ self-interests or fears. Heavy sigh. The music seemed to grab me from the heart and pull me into it. Gotta say, I started a different commentary and somehow lost the whole thing. So I’ll have to tell you more later. Thanks again for the post and for the reminder of the greatness of Queen. I remembered some of these songs and some were either new to me or long-forgotten. I can’t wait to read # 82!

  4. Pingback: 80th Favorite Album | 100 Favorite Albums

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