When I first began the predecessor to this blog (which you can read here), for some reason I decided to do a “review” of every one of Queen’s UK singles. I haven’t written one since April 2008, so it’s probably past time to carry on with them. They’re not really proper reviews, more my own musings on the songs hopefully written in a vaguely interesting style. So here we go…
By 1978, Queen were becoming huge – massive audiences, huge record sales, and increasing wealth (after several years of earning surprisingly little, despite their success). And their success was showing in other ways: this was the time when the wild partying and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyles really began – the over-the-top-ness of their records spilling over into their real lives. Queen also became tax exiles in this year, spending the maximum time possible in the UK before they became liable for higher rates of tax (this was the period when they discovered, and bought, the Mountain Studios in Montreux; studios that would play a hugely important part in their career, not least in the years leading up to Freddie’s death).
And this outrageousness shows in their album of that year, Jazz. To be frank, it’s a bit bonkers. Not bad, not by any stretch of the imagination. Just somewhat off the rails, taking their experiments in genres outside of rock to the limits including Freddie’s quasi-Islamic sounds in Mustafa. This is the album that gives a home to Don’t Stop Me Now, which tells you pretty much all you need to know.
And then we get to these two songs, released as a double A-side. Fat Bottomed Girls is probably the most straightforward: a pretty much by-the-numbers Brian May rocker, with healthy amounts of guitar, harmonies and Freddie’s hardest rock voice. Oh, and a pretty good breakneck drum solo from Roger Taylor.
What’s it about? Sex, apparently. May has apparently said that he and Mercury were exchanging knowing glances and grins as they went through the song. Lines like “I was just a skinny lad” and “heap-big woman, you made a bad boy out of me” add a somewhat sordid tone to the whole thing, perhaps reflecting the band’s increasing, er, extra-curricular activities outside of the studio (and perhaps inside as well – who knows?).
(On the album version, which is substantially longer than the single mix, there’s a weird bit of production, where May’s guitar only comes through one side of the mix for the first few seconds. Is this deliberate? Or did Queen, reunited with Roy Thomas Baker, simply overlook it?)
I probably sound like a bit of a prude – probably I am. The song, especially the chorus, is as catchy as hell and no doubt the group would want it to be heard with a knowing wink. But it’s hard not to ignore the subtext.
If the album as a whole is a bit bonkers, then Bicycle Race is the point when it gives up on all pretences of sanity. In less than 3 minutes it passes through numerous key changes, time signature changes and gives us perhaps the first ever bicycle bell solo in a top 40 record (unless anyone knows otherwise). And those “Bicycle, bicycle, bicycle”s just keep crashing in, in case we weren’t sure.
Meanwhile, Freddie proclaims his dislike of Jaws and Star Wars, his disbelief in Superman, Frankenstein and Peter Pan and his reluctance to become President of the USA. All he wants to do is “bicycle, bicycle, bicycle” (apparently, however, Freddie’s fascination with said mode of transport is less to do with bicycles and more to do with someone who was riding one as the Tour De France went by). And who are we to stop him?
These two songs, along with Don’t Stop Me Now, capture the excess of this period of Queen’s career perfectly. They’re rough round the edges compared with the perfect production of most of the groups earlier songs, bawdy and quite, quite bonkers. Whether that’s a good thing or not is entirely up to you.
Videos: Let’s start with the straightforward one. Fat Bottomed Girls is another performance video of the group. Or rather, it’s a video of Freddie singing with occasional glimpses of some other guys playing instruments. Listen to the commentary on the Greatest Video Hits 1 DVD to hear Brian and Roger’s understandable complaints about this.
And Bicycle Race… Someone (Freddie?) decided that what this song needed was a bunch of naked models riding around on bikes. So that’s what they filmed. Clearly EMI weren’t going to be happy releasing that as a video, so they made a second version with the offending shots of the models overlaid with obscuring video effects, interspersed with random shots of people on bikes and cartoons of Superman et al. The “clean” version was released on the Greatest Flixton VHS release, the original on the Greatest Video Hits DVD. Both of them are available on YouTube, though for some reason the first one is easier to find…
Oh, and Raleigh refused to accept the bikes back afterwards.