In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Queen’s The Game, which went to No. 1 on September 20, 1980, where it stayed for five weeks.
“And nobody played synthesizer,” brags the liner notes of Queen’s self-titled debut album. Released in 1973, the album came out during a time when synthesizers were just beginning to make inroads into mainstream rock—despite that, two years earlier, The Who had proven the viability and vitality of the instrument on Who’s Next hits like “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Queen’s insistence on synth-free purity was somewhat understandable. With Queen, the band ushered in a new and extravagant use of studio manipulation the likes of which might have made George Martin blush. In Queen’s hands, the tape machine became even more of a symphonic tool than it had been on Sgt. Pepper’s. But that was a painstaking, exacting process. Synthesizers were seen as a shortcut, a cheap crutch. Their very name screamed “synthetic.” The irony being, there was never anything naturalistic about Queen’s decadent, fantastic glam.
The first sound heard on “Play The Game,” the opening song of Queen’s 1980 album The Game, is a synthesizer. Throughout the rest of the record, almost everybody in the band—save for bassist John Deacon—plays synthesizer. Queen had broken one of its own written-in-stone rules. But it wasn’t the only rule The Game broke. From the funk of “Another One Bites The Dust” to the new-wave power-pop of “Coming Soon” to the rockabilly of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” the album was a major refutation of the idea—prevalent then and now—that a mainstream band must sound like itself, whatever that sound is understood to be.
Queen wasn’t the first rock band to succeed by adopting many styles. Everyone from David Bowie to U2 to Radiohead is proof that groups can embrace diversity and become beloved because of it. But in those cases, the music evolved gradually—and the diversity isn’t very broad within any particular album. Queen loved its records to be smorgasbords. On albums like 1975’s A Night At The Opera and 1978’s Jazz, the band trafficked in a variety of musical genres, a dizzying dynamic that could turn on a dime from one track to the next. A Night At The Opera’s (and ultimately Queen’s) biggest hit, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” contains a multitude of styles within a single song. Bowie is generally credited with being rock’s foremost musical chameleon, but Freddie Mercury and crew could pack more changes into six minutes—and make them feel playful rather than cerebral—than Bowie could in an entire album.
Still, nothing Queen had done before fully predicted The Game. “Play The Game” used synthesizers to ice Mercury’s sweeping pep talk to the lovelorn, but it sits at the far end of the spectrum from the album’s most popular track, “Another One Bites The Dust.” If Queen, in all its variety, had a hallmark, it was painstakingly layered ornamentation and multidimensional harmonies. Here was a song as stark as a skeleton. Locked into one of the tightest grooves of the era—and this was the age of disco—“Another One Bites The Dust” feels like a fully realized reprise of “Fun It,” a tepid track from Jazz that marked Queen’s tentative entry into slick, stark funk. Jazz was not a well-received record, and “Fun It” was a small part of that. Whatever possessed Queen to restrain its ballooning grandiloquence and dig into the funk, while making “Another One Bites The Dust” can only be chalked up to blind faith—or cocksure swagger.
But there’s another, more contentious antecedent to “Another One Bites The Dust.” Chic’s “Good Times” came out in 1979, and its crisp bite helped revolutionize disco, not to mention dance music, for decades to come. It also gave Queen critics plenty of ammunition, considering Deacon’s bass line for “Another One Bites The Dust” bears a striking resemblance to Bernard Edwards’ in “Good Times.” Deacon had even visited Chic in the studio in 1979 when the group had been recording the album “Good Times” appears on, Risque. As detailed in Mark Blake’s Is This The Real Life?: The Untold Story Of Queen, Deacon didn’t deny it. As for Edwards, his main regret was that some people mistakenly thought Chic had ripped off Queen. That the two tracks were so similar is testament to how adeptly Deacon—who’d cut his teeth playing Motown covers in his little-known ’60s band The Opposition—had been able to credibly appropriate funk’s cutting edge.
Queen wasn’t only hooked on synth-and-funk futurism. The Game’s other major hit nearly gave itself whiplash in its rush to glance backward. “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” is a rockabilly tune: simply rendered, lovingly reverent, and euphorically unhip. The only thing it has in common with “Another One Bites The Dust” is the fact that Jazz presaged it: That album’s “Dreamer’s Ball” is a eulogy to the recently departed Elvis Presley. That said, “Dreamer’s Ball” only barely echoes the languid crooning of The King, mixed as it is with guitarist Brian May’s baroque electric guitar. “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” is a sharp slap back, a song that could pass as a cover of some long-lost Elvis outtake. With all the twist and twang of a late-’50s sock-hop staple, the song shows Mercury indulging in nostalgia that’s neither corny nor maudlin—and barnstorming his way into a liberating anachronism. After being tagged for so long as a progressive rock band, Queen seemed to relish the idea of confounding the world by hip-swiveling into the past.
The rest of The Game falls between the poles of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites The Dust,” but none of it is filler. In addition to the soaring “Play The Game” and The Cars-like “Coming Soon,” there’s the boogie-metal wizardry of “Dragon Attack,” the chugging dance-punk of “Rock It (Prime Jive),” and the strangest would-be PSA in the annals of rock, “Don’t Try Suicide,” which comes with the bouncy refrain, “Don’t try suicide / Nobody cares.” Offsetting the occasional flashes of flippancy is the album’s closer, “Save Me.” An alternately delicate and bombastic ballad cut from the same cloth as Queen’s 1976 classic “Somebody To Love,” “Save Me” was written by May and sung by Mercury with such crystalline virtuosity, it’s astounding just how heart-piercing—how small and vulnerable—its majestic choruses sound. It’s one of the Queeniest Queen songs ever: an anthem for the beer-spilling cheap seats that still feels sinfully luxe.
In his 1979 Rolling Stone review of Jazz, Dave Marsh called Queen “the first truly fascist rock band.” (This was a few years after David Bowie had been accused of Nazism, which logically makes the Queen-Bowie collaboration “Under Pressure” the Axis alliance of ’80s pop.) But Marsh’s charges of arrogance and elitism were utterly disarmed by The Game. 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. 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.