Dave’s Underrated Albums … “News of the World” (1977) by Queen

During the winter of 1977-1978, I was 8-years-old and my American peers and I considered Queen’s double A-side single of “We Will Rock You / We Are The Champions” the most awesome one-two punch on the pop charts of all-time.  Yes, with nearly 40 additional years on the planet and a more thorough understanding of pop music history, I’ll admit this assertion may have been more than a little premature.  But hearing these songs back to back on the radio during that winter was quite the event for yours truly.

What’s interesting is that when I bought the single, I was only interested in “We Are The Champions” because on most Top 40 stations, that’s all you typically heard.  But … on the “super-heavy” FM stations … “We Will Rock You” always preceded “We Are the Champions” and one night when the car radio happened to be on one of these stations, I heard “We Will Rock You” for the first time, completely unaware it was performed by Queen.  Thanks to my brother, I was already a KISS fan, but “We Will Rock You,” I concluded, was the “heaviest” thing I’d ever heard at that point.  I had no idea what this song was called (or even that Queen performed it … FM DJ’s tended to be very casual about mentioning what they were playing back then), but it was something that completely knocked me off my feet.

Back to “We Are The Champions.”  Getting the single wasn’t an easy task.  I typically spent my $1 per week allowance on a 45-RPM single and every time I went to a record store during that winter, “We Are The Champions” was always sold out.  After multiple weeks of heartbreak, I started calling every record store within a radius of where my Mom would drive me, and asked … daily … if they had any copies in stock.  I finally hit pay dirt in February of 1978, begged my Mom to drive me to a record store that was a little bit farther than she typically drove, and finally acquired the record.  I enjoyed “We Are The Champions” but noticed that the B-side (which I rarely ever played back then) was something called “We Will Rock You.”  Somehow, the synapses in my brain connected and flipped the record over.  And yes, finally, I found the song I loved so much … and even better … I didn’t have to pay extra for it.  My 8-year-old brain had a mental orgasm.

Next task … getting the album where these songs resided.  At some point that spring, my grandparents gave me $5 for either good grades or some other reason and with some additional allowance money I hadn’t miraculously spent, I was able to purchase Queen’s “News of the World.”  This was literally the first rock album I ever acquired.  Yes, I had other albums, but mostly they were recorded by someone named Barry Manilow, who never amounted to much and a singer I’d rather not talk about … ever … especially songs like “Weekend in New England,” “Mandy” “Could This Be Magic?” … Seriously … Those records never existed … especially in my collection … MMMKAY?

So … back to “News of the World” … I wasn’t sure what I was expecting back then, but none of the other songs sounded like “We Are The Champions” or “We Will Rock You.”  There was one hard rock song called “Fight From the Inside” that I liked a lot.  There was also another “heavy” song called “Sheer Heart Attack” which was too loud and fast for me then.  And there was also a really weird, disturbing (to me at the time) song called “Get Down, Make Love.”  But other than that, I thought it was a mixed bag of tunes and I was so disappointed, I didn’t make it past the first song on Side 2.  I was disappointed because it wasn’t like a KISS record, concluded that I should have spent that money on a KISS record my brother didn’t already have or a Barry Manilow record … NO, dammit … I didn’t just say THAT!

Cut to 1991 … I’m in college and working at a campus radio station.  We receive a new CD-single by Nine Inch Nails which has a cover of Queen’s “Get Down, Make Love” as its B-side.  By this point, I’d nearly forgotten about Queen’s song, but I play the Nine Inch Nails single and again, the world’s slowest human being (meaning me) put two and two together.  Except that the Nine Inch Nails cover was even more pulverizing and disturbing than Queen’s version.  This discovery made me pull out the old Queen album from my LP collection and I listened to  “News of the World” with new ears.  And I concluded the album is a complete gem.

“News of the World” isn’t a great album, but it’s a very charming one.  Aside from the double A-side every knows, this is one the band’s “heaviest” albums.  “Sheer Heart Attack,” the song I thought was too loud and fast back in the day, was Queen’s attempt at one-upping punk rock by creating something more intense than the Sex Pistols and while it doesn’t completely succeed, is a damn good try.  While I prefer the Nine Inch Nails cover, Queen’s “Get Down, Make Love” sounds like a disturbing anthem for the NYC Plato’s Retreat / Anvil / Mineshaft crowd of 1970s sexual hedonism.  “Sleeping on the Sidewalk” is a decent attempt of doing an Aerosmith-style blues homage.   And … finally … the last song on the album …Queen’s all-time greatest song … the anthemic hard rock masterpiece “It’s Late.”

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, “It’s Late” should be THE Queen song that’s played ad nauseum on classic rock radio. This is pure, balls-to-the-wall, non-campy hard rock that will peel the paint off the walls. That relentless multi-layered lead guitar sound by Brian May feels like a wool sweater in hell. And let’s not forget that cataclysmic drum sound by Roger Taylor that will shake your molars. Totally epic in every sense of the word. Allegedly this was a favorite of Kurt Cobain’s (given its presence in the Kurt Cobain documentary “About a Son”). It was also put to great use in Jody Hill’s brilliantly demented comedy “Observe and Report.” From the 1977 album “News of the World.”

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“Jesus Don’t Want Me For a Sunbeam” – The Vaselines / Nirvana

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The Vaselines’ most famous song, mainly thanks to Nirvana’s memorable cover on their MTV Uplugged Live performance in 1993. Released in 1988 on the EP “Dying for It,” the song is a bitter answer to the traditional children’s hymn “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” on par with XTC’s “Dear God” and Patti Smith’s psycho-sexual “Gloria” in terms of its anti-religious sentiment. However, “Sunbeam” may be more powerful because the music is so deceptively mellow, the lyrics hit like a fist. You can now find it on the excellent Sup Pop released compilation “The Way of the Vaselines.”

Oddly, the song is called “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” on all the Vaselines’ recordings even though the lyrics say “Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam.” Nirvana’s cover is titled the same way as the lyrics.

I’ve included Nirvana’s version below:

Trivia note: Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love named their daughter Frances after the Vaselines’ Frances McKee.

“The Man Who Sold the World” – Nirvana / David Bowie

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When I first saw Nirvana’s MTV “Unplugged” appearance, I was pleasantly surprised by this really terrific cover of an otherwise obscure David Bowie song from 1971. I was VERY familiar with the song, being a big fan of Bowie’s pre-Ziggy Stardust album of the same name, which I remember buying on cassette from Fantasia Records in Charlottesville, VA in 1988. Bowie’s original album was quite trippy … and heavy … at the same time. To this day, a VERY underrated album. Thanks to Nirvana for giving the props to this extremely cool phase of Bowie’s career.

I’ve attached Bowie’s original here:

“Aneurysm” (Live) – Nirvana

Let’s get this straight once and for all. Just because Nirvana recorded for a Seattle label (SubPop) doesn’t make them a Seattle band. Nirvana was an Olympia band. Kurt wrote “Bleach” and “Nevermind” in the hovel that was one block away from where my dear wife worked for almost two years. This is my favorite track from my favorite Nirvana album (“Live at Reading”).

“Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” – Nirvana

This is a cover of Leadbelly’s version of “In the Pines,” a folk song that dates back to the 1870s. In “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the 1980 biopic about Loretta Lynn with Sissy Spacek, Lynn sings a version of this song as a lullaby to quiet her baby sister. This cover is arguably Nirvana’s finest hour and like Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt,” if this doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, you’re not human.

“Stay Away” – Charles Bradley & The Menahan Street Band

One of my favorite covers EVER!  Imagine Wilson Pickett coming back from the grave and singing his a– off, covering a Nirvana song. Yes, this is as awesome as it sounds and THIS is how you cover a Nirvana song. Kurt is surely smiling (and dancing) wherever he is.

“Lake of Fire” – Meat Puppets

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In honor of Greg Prato’s recent un-putdownable Meat Puppets biography “Too High to Die,” here’s the song that Nirvana later made famous on their 1993 MTV Unplugged special. What a great song! And what a great bio Prato has written. Currently only available as a digital book through Amazon Kindle and Lulu.com, I guarantee you won’t be able to put it down. It’s that freakin’ good!!!!