40 Years Ago: Queen Releases a Minor Gem in ‘Back Chat’
One of the great pleasures in revisiting old albums comes from discovering songs that at first seemed like throw-away tracks, but years later gleam like little forgotten gems. For an example, look no further than "Back Chat," the final single off from Queen's confused and confusing Hot Space.
The early '80s album was much derided upon release for its turn toward dance beats and its use of synthesizers, particularly among Queen's hard-core fans. Turns out, this was as much a matter of mental health as anything else.
"We have to do what keeps our interest up," drummer Roger Taylor told the Detroit Free Press at the time. "We never tried to pander to what we feel people want. A lot of people want to hear rehashes of what they liked in the past, but that would be death for us."
But many fans weren't happy with the experimentation, instead declaring that Queen had left behind the grandiose hard rock that had up until that point been their calling card. Hot Space sold poorly. Other than the single "Under Pressure" – which had been recorded with David Bowie during an entirely different session than the rest of the tracks – the LP was mostly consigned to the dust bin of failed attempts.
Watch Queen's 'Back Chat' Video
Slowly and surely, however, Hot Space has begun to be reassessed over the years. Critics aren't hailing some sort of lost classic, but it's not uncommon anymore to hear claims that this record is a lot more interesting than given credit for.
Released on Aug. 9, 1982, "Back Chat" provides a great example of why. The song was written by bassist John Deacon, who also plays rhythm guitar and synth, and was originally seen as Queen's turn toward R&B: Rolling Stone's original review of Hot Space called "Back Chat" a "hot rock-funk tune, with guitar tracks as slick as an icy dance floor."
Listening decades later, one hears something entirely different. "Back Chat" opens with a thin trembling guitar line that brings to mind not some old George Clinton song, but the kind of approach that would send a band like Men at Work to the top of the U.S. charts in 1983. The drum and bass line that drops in just after this certainly bears some traces of funk or even disco, but only as filtered through the English dance-scene sensibilities of a band like New Order, or even the punk-influenced sound of certain songs from early records from the Cure.
Guitarist Brian May's lead line playing on the track bears a good deal of similarity to Robert Smith's early work. And May's solo in the song – as thin and angular as anything he ever laid down – is certainly not nodding to blues or soul music. Instead, it connects with the work of prog maestro Steve Howe or even the work that Jennifer Batten would do with Michael Jackson later in the decade.
Listen to Queen's Live 'Back Chat'
In the end, "Back Chat" sounds like nothing so much as a solidly crafted, slightly goth, dance-oriented new wave song. It partakes in a good deal of the down-beat cultural reaction to the U.K.'s chilly austerity of the Margaret Thatcher era, as well as the bombastic good cheer of Ronald Reagan in the U.S. At the same time, "Back Chat" anticipates some of the best pop that is to come in the following decade.
That Queen was aware of this cultural placement seems clear from the video they released in support of the song. The opening scene finds singer Freddie Mercury climbing out of a mechanical device that rises out of the ground like a giant piston, after which the band performs on the set holding this piston and other mechanical, factory-looking backdrops.
The entire thing is starkly shot in white, blue and gray. It's a strikingly different look than the red-and-black colors, dance-club vibe, and writhing bodies found in the clip Queen made for "Body Language" from Hot Stuff, prompting MTV's first-ever ban. Queen is searching for the feel of the brooding sensibility that was already dominating a large portion of the cutting-edge music scene in England.
When you put all of this together, it's clear that "Back Chat" is anything but a formless track on a failure of an album. Instead, it's one of the more fascinating tracks Queen ever released, a dark little new wave dance tune with musicianship that captures something essential about the feel of its moment.
Not bad for a mostly forgotten track on a mostly disdained album.
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