When Queen’s sixth album hit in fall 1977, first-wave U.K. punk was peaking: News of the World was released the day after Never Mind the Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Arguably the first punk retrofitting by a decidedly un-punk band, Roger Taylor’s “Sheer Heart Attack” harnessed the genre’s speed and fury even while snipping it, and much of the rest was decidedly leaner and meaner than the band’s opulent standard: “We Will Rock You” is nothing but voices, foot stomps, handclaps, and 30 final seconds of guitar. The closest Queen gets to music hall is Freddie Mercury’s closing torch song “My Melancholy Blues,” a stark cabaret number. Vocal choirs and guitar orchestrations linger elsewhere, but rarely dominate.
What’s left is solid hard rock that’s particularly firm on Mercury’s “Get Down Make Love,” one of the most sexually explicit high-profile songs of its day. Despite its two flop singles (John Deacon’s power ballad “Spread Your Wings” and Brian May’s Bad Company-styled “It’s Late”), Queen’s least eclectic, most conventional rock album is also one of its biggest U.S. sellers. It’s the first time May’s songwriting contributions outnumber Mercury’s, and the first time Taylor and Deacon chip in two songs each. It’s tempting to say that its de-emphasis of Mercury’s personality is key to News‘s success, but he sings most of it, and does so in high style.
Few songs have aged as remarkably as his “We Are the Champions.” Like “We Will Rock You,” it was conceived to inspire audience participation. And, on the surface, it’s a song for winners. But given that Mercury died in late 1991 of AIDS and that his homosexuality instantly became common knowledge and that students in conservative American towns still fight for the right to perform his songs for precisely those reasons, “Champions” has morphed into an anthem for the underdogs. The line “I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face” almost certainly refers to those comic book ads for Charles Atlas’s bodybuilding guides where the weakling is humiliated at the beach by the beefier, manlier bully. As if directly addressing future generations of bullied kids who would claim the singer as a hero, Mercury adds, “But I’ve come through.” Few would argue otherwise.