Queen’s first and most audacious four albums were co-produced by Roy Thomas Baker, a former sound engineer whose ability to get an aggressive yet intricate sound via countless overdubs became synonymous with the band. Having closely observed his work, Queen produced itself on A Day at the Races and settled for Baker’s engineer Mike Stone on News of the World with at times less extraordinary, more conventional dividends. Meanwhile, Baker helmed the Cars’ 1978 debut, a new-wave milestone. The producer then returned, and although Jazz was panned at the time (most famously in Rolling Stone, where Dave Marsh proclaimed “Queen may be the first truly fascist rock band”), this late-’78 return to form ranks among the band’s cheekiest achievements.
Rolling Stone‘s fascist argument is flimsy and ridiculous. It’s based on the claim that Queen asserts a condescending cultural superiority through what the magazine characterized as glib musical parodies that belittle both the source material and its audience. The magazine deemed “Mustapha,” the opening Arabic track, “merely a clumsy and pretentious rewrite of ‘Hernando’s Hideaway,’ which has about as much to do with Middle Eastern culture as street-corner souvlaki.” Born Farrokh Bulsara, Freddie Mercury — a Parsi who grew up in Zanzibar and then India until completing high school — kept his ethnicity a secret and passed as a white Brit. But if any world-class ’70s rocker could do justice to Middle Eastern music, it would be Mercury, whose “Mustapha” distills Arabic-Persian styles as masterfully as his “Bohemian Rhapsody” draws from opera.
Built on the condensed song structures that harken back to Sheer Heart Attack, the rest of Jazz is just as accomplished. Mercury’s “Bicycle Race” seems frivolous and pop, but its complex chords and fluctuating time signatures are total prog. The flip of its AA-side single, May’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” employs folk-pop harmonies, churning rock guitar and Broadway razzle-dazzle without sounding like any one thing. Roger Taylor’s funky “Fun It” points in the rhythm-driven direction of The Game and Hot Space, while Mercury’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” delivers piano-pounding, ABBA-level giddiness. This would be Baker’s last Queen collaboration, but it’s a blast.