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Gonna Take On The World Someday: “We Will Rock You” At 40

On October 7, 1977 — 40 years ago tomorrow — Queen ensured the music world, and the sports world, a good four decades’ worth of stomping and clapping and yelling when they released “We Will Rock You” as a single. In a formatting choice that goes 100% counter to every possible way it was played afterwards, “We Will Rock You” was put on the B-side of the 7″ single with “We Are The Champions,” Queen’s own answer to “My Way,” as the A-side. A few weeks later on the release of the LP News Of The World, “We Will Rock You”/”We Are The Champions” were sequenced as the 1-2 punch of the album’s opening and, subsequently, became the canonical pairing for classic rock playlists and Greatest Hits collections and live albums in all perpetuity.

And if that’s really all it was — one of a dozen or so Queen songs that even casual rock fans knew, albeit one a lot more simplistic and unsubtle compared to compact epics like “You’re My Best Friend” or “Don’t Stop Me Now” — then, hey, fine. It’s a hell of an opener, even if (for this writer’s money) “Sheer Heart Attack” and “Fight From The Inside” are the real jams on News Of The World.

But that’s not all it was. “We Will Rock You” may be both the peak of rock’s influence outside the world of music itself and the biggest reduction of rock itself to a participatory exercise that just about anyone could join in. Sure, Brian May’s guitar solo at the end — the one element that actually required a traditional rock instrument — sounds like a brass ring out of most peoples’ reach. But the rest of it? Stomp-stomp clap. Simple enough.

So simple, in fact, that it escaped the orbit of rock radio and music-qua-music to become a rallying cry, an heir to English football chants that became a sort of omnipresent, universal morse code for we are geeked for a sports thing. It is the ur-Jock Jam, despite the inexplicable (or at least cost-prohibitive) absence of “We Will Rock You” on any of the actual ESPN/Tommy Boy Jock Jams compilations. And in a world where sports are bigger than pop music, and a piece of pop music becomes almost entirely inseparable from sports, where else can this song really go?

If anything, you could probably pin a lot of this on the entire concept of “stadium rock” as a thing. And not merely the early-years notions of, say, the Beatles playing Shea Stadium, but the expansion of bombast and spectacle meant to accommodate the kind of venues that became de rigeur in the ’70s once the big stars became too popular (and too lucrative) for mere clubs and theaters. Once sound systems and light shows became technologically advanced enough, playing music in the same venues typically dedicated to Dr. J foul-line dunks or Reggie Jackson moonshot homers turned rock into a spectator sport — in these packed crowds with steep stadium seating, there’s far more room to stand up and cheer than there is to actually dance. (The irony being that the biggest mass rock-world denunciation of dancing as an integral component of pop music, 1979’s Disco Demolition Night, took place in a stadium. Queen wound up releasing a Chic soundalike the following year anyways.)

So if you can’t dance because you’re stuck sitting in the cheap seats and you’re scared of falling over the safety railing because you’re simultaneously drunk and stoned, hell, stomp-stomp clap should work out just fine — especially if you’ve got a sellout crowd at one of those old concrete donuts stomp-stomp clapping along with you. No other ’70s rock juggernaut anthem ever felt less like it belonged in the isolation of your homebound headphones, and deserved to be dragged out, kicking and screaming, in front of a six-figure audience by a band playing for seven-figure dollars.

Thanks to contemporaneous attitudes about arena rock — with pro and con both assuming it’s a lot more dipshitty and mindless than it actually is — it’s become easy to think of “We Will Rock You” by received wisdom as a thuggish douchebag kind of song. Dave Marsh infamously stated as much in a 1979 Rolling Stone zero-star review of Jazz: “Its anthem, ‘We Will Rock You’ is a marching order: you will not rock us, we will rock you. Indeed, Queen may be the first truly fascist rock band.” (The song was two years and an entire album ago at that point; it must have been gnawing at Dave for a while.)

It’s a misreading, willful or otherwise, of what might otherwise be recognizable as yet another work in the tradition of Queen’s over-the-top camp, though it’s not an uncommon one — the aggro machismo of the baser impulses of “We Will Rock You” has spilled over into other arenas, too. At best, it can be a tongue-in-cheek flip on an old cliche, shared by hip-hop royalty for pulp-crime punchlines; taken beyond the point of parody into half-ironic self-seriousness you get something like Henry Rollins waxing all serial killerish and turning it into a joyless threat: “I Have Come to Kill You”. Or you could turn the dial all the way over to the other end sincerity-wise, where you could wind up with Linda Ronstadt turning it into a lullaby or UK boy band Five teaming with the surviving members of Queen for a nu-metal-adjacent Too Big To Fail slab of millennial pop bloat. Shit, why not? After so much time being reduced to whatever meaning you can get from its hook alone, whether you’re talking about rallying a ballclub or selling cameras, the song’s just there — can it even mean anything anymore?

Of course: because the one thing that almost always gets left out of the discussion when it comes to analyzing “We Will Rock You” is that it’s a song about how life goes on without it ever getting easier. First you’re a kid playing kick-the-can and getting all muddied up because you don’t know what you’re doing even though you’re expected to, since you’re supposed to be on your way to growing up. Then you’re a young man running around in the street yelling and raising a ruckus — could be a protest, could just be a throwdown, whatever requires a good banner-waving — and getting blood on your face, probably from being clobbered by a rival fan or a riot cop. And finally, once you’re all old and broke and busted, all that’s left is to get some kind of closure — and you get mud on your face again, maybe as a side effect of being buried in the grave.

And all the time, you’re a big disgrace… but to who? Well… to the people you’re defiantly standing against, threatening to rock, with the “we” in question being a symbiotic band/fan relationship. The story has it that Brian May was inspired to write “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions” when the audience at a 1977 gig at Birmingham venue Bingley Hall — not a stadium, but a mid-19th century exhibition building — sang along with every song, then saw Queen off post-encore by belting Rodgers & Hammerstein standard turned football-supporter anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in appreciation. It wasn’t an imperial, globe-striding band playing to passive listeners: it was a feedback loop between fans and the objects of their fandom.

And while populism too often gets mistaken for fascism — including the rulers who use the former to achieve the latter — that’s not the case here. It’s spectacle, it’s a rooting section, it’s the catharsis of watching a group of people you’re emotionally invested in performing at their best. And sometimes, all you can really do when you’re given that excitement is: stomp-stomp clap.

Tags: Queen