In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Queen didn’t have a genre. They didn’t need a genre. They had Freddie Mercury. In their first decade as a band, Queen had veered all over the musical map — into prog, metal, glam, art-rock, pseudo-classical pomp. Freddie Mercury, the band’s larger-than-life frontman, took all those forms and forced them to submit to his own overwhelming personality. If Queen had a single unifying concept, it was the too-muchness that Mercury brought to everything he did, the kind of absurdist ambition that might lead a rock-band singer to think he could try on opera for size. And yet Queen’s first American #1 had very little of that too-muchness. Instead, it was a knowingly simple piece of down-the-middle rockabilly revivalism, a self-conscious Elvis flashback.
By the time Queen landed that first #1 with “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” they’d been stars on both sides of the Atlantic for years. The band had formed in London in 1970, when a student group called Smile adopted their biggest fan, Mercury, as their new frontman. Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, had settled in London as a teenager and studied art in college. He’d then worked as a clerk in second-hand stores and as a baggage handler at Heathrow. Smile were about to break up in 1970, when the original singer left to join a band called Humpy Bong. (Humpy Bong. This was this guy’s career move.) Mercury joined Smile, changed their name to Queen, and designed their new logo. He remade them in his image.
Queen released their self-titled debut in 1972 and started scoring UK hits a couple years later. One of those early successes, 1974’s “Killer Queen,” also did well in the US, peaking at #12. As the band became more adventurous, they also got bigger. 1975’s beautifully overblown “Bohemian Rhapsody” became one of the biggest hits of all time in the UK, where it reigned at #1 for nine weeks. In the US, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was Queen’s first top-10 hit, peaking at #9. (In 1992, “Bohemian Rhapsody” returned to the US charts thanks to its appearance in Wayne’s World, where it peaked at #2. It’s a 9.)
Before “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” Queen only had two top-10 US hits: “Bohemian Rhapsody” and 1977’s “We Are The Champions,” which peaked at #4. (It’s a 7.) Their singles often landed in the top 40, but they weren’t really a singles act. They sold a lot of albums — 1975’s A Night At The Opera went triple-platinum — and they toured arenas. Commercially, Queen could’ve been considered peers of some of the big American rock bands of the era, the Journeys and Bostons. But Freddie Mercury had a whole lot more personality than the Steve Perrys and Brad Delps of the world, and the band had more ambition. So Queen were a category unto themselves — flamboyantly huge rock travelers who didn’t like any genre enough to commit to it for too long.
Mercury wrote “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” while taking a bubble bath at the Hilton in Munich, where Queen were recording the 1980 album The Game. He later claimed that it took him between five and 10 minutes. Mercury worked the song out on guitar, which he barely knew how to play. This did well for him. Simplicity wasn’t really Mercury’s thing; he tended toward extravagant multi-part fantasias. But working within the boundaries of his own acoustic-guitar abilities, he came up with a relatively modest throwback shuffle of a song. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of No. 1 Hits, Mercury later said that “Crazy Little Thing” is “not typical of my work, but that’s because nothing is typical of my work.” On the single, Mercury played rhythm guitar, something he’d never done on record before.
Really, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” is a Broadway-style Elvis tribute just as consciously campy as anything that John Travolta did on the Grease soundtrack. Mercury sings much of the song in a lower-register growl that practically qualifies as an imitation, though he still jumps up into his crowd-pleasing yelps whenever the feeling hits him. John Deacon plays an old-timey walking bassline. Brian May knocks out a guitar solo that starts as rockabilly shredding before exploding into pyrotechnics. Even when the band breaks the beat, as on Roger Taylor’s little snare-tap break, it’s a silly bit of quasi-jazz showmanship. The whole song, from its handclaps to its schticky backup vocals, is ’50s rockabilly reimagined for turn-of-the-’80s arena crowds. It’s a gimmick, a nostalgic nod toward a star who’d died a couple of years earlier. The gimmick worked.
Someone who knows more about queer theory than me might have a whole lot to say about the levels of drag that Mercury tries on in “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Mercury wasn’t openly gay when the band recorded “Crazy Little Thing,” though it doesn’t seem like he was trying particularly hard to hide it, either. In the amazingly theatrical “Crazy Little Thing” video, Mercury dances with both men and women, and he also adapts a sort of leather-daddy persona, straddling a motorcycle and spinning around what sure looks like a stripper pole. In pushing his Elvis impression even further into the realm of camp than Travolta had done in Grease, you could argue that Mercury is queering the image of one of America’s great masculine icons. That’s pretty interesting! It’s more interesting than the song itself, anyway.
As someone who first experienced Queen as rock-radio mainstays and greatest-hits-album fodder, it’s weird to think that “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” was, at least in terms of pure American chart impact, probably the band’s biggest hit. (It’s their longest-reigning #1, anyway.) Within the band’s catalog, it always sounded like a fun little novelty, a lark of a song that had none of the weight or cultural presence of a “Bohemian Rhapsody” or a “We Will Rock You.” Queen were never an especially serious band, but “Crazy Little Thing” seems especially silly. The lyrics, for instance, are virtual gibberish. We learn that love swings, jives, and shakes all over like a jellyfish. Mercury is so in love with his baby, who knows how to rock ‘n’ roll, that all he can do is take a ride on his motorbike. It’s all pretty stupid, though not unpleasantly so.
Maybe “Crazy Little Thing” hit the way it did just because it arrived at a certain nostalgic moment. Elvis was dead, and disco was getting there. A few months earlier, the Knack had hornily resurrected the sound of the British Invasion with “My Sharona,” the biggest hit of 1979. Maybe Queen, intentionally or not, had hit upon a similar strain of nostalgia. Or maybe they’d simply become so big that, when they came out with an actual pop song like “Crazy Little Thing,” radio had to throw them into heavy rotation. (Queen released “Crazy Little Thing” in the UK in October of 1979. Elektra, the band’s US label, didn’t plan an American release, but they put it out once American DJs started playing import copies on the radio. The Game wouldn’t arrive until months later.) Either way, Queen fully established their American pop-chart primacy with “Crazy Little Thing.” We’ll see them in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Queen performing “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” at their famously show-stealing Live Aid performance at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1985:
And here’s the near-exact recreation of that “Crazy Little Thing” performance in the 2018 film Bohemian Rhapsody, which won Rami Malek an Oscar for playing Freddie Mercury:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1992, a few months after Mercury’s death, Queen returned to Wembley Stadium for the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. Other stars stood in for Mercury, singing Queen’s songs. Here’s Queen doing “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” with Robert Plant, combining it with Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You”:
(As a solo artist, Robert Plant’s highest-charting single, his 1984 cover of Phil Phillips’ “Sea Of Love,” peaked at #3. It’s a 7. Led Zeppelin’s highest-charting single, 1969’s “Whole Lotta Love,” peaked at #4. It’s a 10.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Dwight Yoakam’s video for his countrified 1999 cover of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”:
And here’s the 1999 Gap commercial that featured Yoakam’s cover:
(Yoakam’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” cover peaked at #64 on the Hot 100. Yoakam has had a whole lot of country-chart success, but that’s his biggest pop crossover.)