It’s an ironclad law that sooner or later every band makes at least one decision that everyone hates. For fans of Queenthe realization that this was finally happening came with “Staying Power”, the opening number on 1982’s Hot Space which (mercifully, in many minds) made its only appearance as a single in Japan.
Queen had gone on a long, miraculous run in the ’70s, churning out album after album of rock ‘n’ roll that swung from the heavy to the operatic and back again, often in the same song. Their first performances of the new decade had been equally wonderful and strange.
The game was a smash hit in 1980, hitting No. 1 on the US charts and eventually selling more than 4 million copies, despite having a more pop-oriented sound and introducing most ’80s instruments into the band’s repertoire for the first time time: the synthesizer. They followed that up quirky, wonderful soundtrack for the movie Flash Gordonwhich was perhaps the most high-profile opera work Queen had ever released.
It is then reasonable to assume that a listener is lying Hot Space on their turntable perhaps expect more of the same hard rock with a twist. But what they got was something else entirely: a reminder that a new decade had arrived and pulled everything into its gravitational field.
“Staying Power” kicks things off with an ’80s-style cheesy-funk bass line (actually played by lead singer Freddie Mercury on a synth) and a disco-style drum beat. The latter features a cowbell and the era’s characteristic snake drum noise, which registers somewhere between the sound of a snare and a high hat.
Listen to Queen’s Studio Version of ‘Staying Power’
So it was immediately clear that a musician was not playing. Instead, Queen used a programmed track. (Drummer Roger Taylor did the honors, on a Linn LM-1 drum machine.) This was drastically different: a band that prided itself on accomplished musicianship had decided to go in a completely new direction.
The next element of “Staying Power” finished pushing the single out onto the dance floor. Immediately after Mercury slips into vocals, an up-tempo funk/pop horn section arranged by longtime Atlantic Records producer Arif Mardin jumps in behind him. From there, the song unfolds into something that is totally divergent. “Staying Power” was electronically driven, rhythm-oriented and seemingly meant to be played at a disco rather than a rock show.
The lyrics reinforce this with a number of sexual doubles. Mercury appears to challenge his own fans with the chorus of “you and me have stamina“: Whatever they think of this new direction, they’d be foolish to think Queen can’t ride it through to success.
Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, it didn’t happen. Neither “Staying Power” nor Hot Space was well regarded. The album broke a streak of platinum hits without a soundtrack dating back to 1975’s masterpiece An evening at the Opera – and the single did not chart after its release on July 31, 1982.
These stumbles ended up causing a certain amount of recriminations.
Listen to Queen perform ‘Staying Power’ in concert
That difficult sessions in Munich, which produced most of Hot Space came to be recognized as one of the low points of Queen’s career. (This LP’s only acknowledged gem, the one that stuck David Bowie duet”Under pressure,” came from an earlier jam in the band’s studio in Montreux.)
Mercury’s personal manager Paul Prenter was subsequently accused of having a detrimental influence on the band’s sound. Taylor went on to admit it DJ Jim Ladd that “everyone in the band” felt they had strayed too far into disco.
What’s fascinating decades later is how true writing “Staying Power” rings in the context of ’80s pop music. The song and the album have long been rumored to be influential Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Whether these are founded or not, one can definitely hear the similarity. In fact, “Staying Power” fits in with a huge amount of pop music released in the first part of the decade.
There might have been a lot of disdain at the time for that music among certain fans – the slogan “Disco Sucks!” survived well into the 80s – but many musicians were still doing wonderful things with it. In context, Queen’s work on Hot Space it doesn’t sound so bad. Instead, it just sounds like a band hearing what was happening around them and letting it seep into their music.
Is “Staying Power” likely to enjoy any grand reappraisal as a lost classic? Probably not. Queen simply went too far from what they did really well. Still, “Staying Power” certainly isn’t terrible, and the song captures much of the feeling of the moment it was made. Queen may have disappointed some fans, but “Staying Power” is now better seen as an interesting experiment rather than an abysmal failure.
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