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.
“I’m tired of the bloody anthems! I want the energy in the clubs! The bodies! I want to make people move.” This is how the absurd 2018 film Bohemian Rhapsody imagines Freddie Mercury speaking to his bandmates. Two of the other members of Queen, Brian May and Roger Taylor, are stricken and scandalized by the idea that Queen should record a disco song. They’re about to throw down over it. In the movie’s version of things, bassist John Deacon writes “Another One Bites The Dust” largely as a way to get everyone else in Queen to stop yelling at each other.
This is not, of course, the way things actually went. Bohemian Rhaposdy, the movie that won a Best Actor Oscar for Rami Malek, presents Queen’s history in the most obvious, dumbed-down way imaginable. That scene does communicate a bit of history. Queen were a bit divided over how much they wanted to mess around with disco, and some of the members of the band were less than fond of “Another One Bites The Dust,” the song that would become their biggest-selling single in the US. But John Deacon did not write “Another One Bites The Dust” in some burst of peacekeeping inspiration. Instead, “Another One” existed in conversation with the other pop music of that moment.
Specifically, “Another One Bites The Dust” is a variation on a riff from another song that had topped the charts a year before “Another One” made its ascent. Deacon’s hard-pulsing bass riff is the heart of “Another One Bites The Dust,” and it’s basically a version of Bernard Edwards’ descending bassline from Chic’s 1979 #1 “Good Times.” Deacon’s version of the riff is simpler and less syncopated, but it’s the kind of thing that would’ve earned Chic a songwriting credit if it happened today.
Taking to NME before his death, Bernard Edwards mentioned that John Deacon had been hanging around Chic’s studio before he wrote “Another One Bites The Dust.” (Of course, Deacon didn’t have to spend time in that studio to hear the “Good Times” bassline. That bassline would’ve been all over the radio in 1979.) Edwards didn’t mind that Queen had taken inspiration from his work, though he did get mad when some people suggested that Chic had stolen from Queen rather than vice versa.
In retrospect, it’s amazing that Queen replaced “Upside Down,” the Diana Ross song that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards wrote and produced, at the #1 spot. It’s a bit like the 1972 moment when America’s Neil Young imitation “A Horse With No Name” knocked the actual Neil Young song “Heart Of Gold” out of #1. If anything, the whole story only illustrates how much Chic defined the turn-of-the-decade moment when the disco era transitioned into the blockbuster ’80s dance-pop that followed.
“Another One Bites The Dust” didn’t sound anything like any previous Queen song, but it didn’t really sound like Chic, either. That’s a credit to Queen, who took that dance-club sound and pushed it in a completely different direction. “Another One Bites The Dust” came from The Game, the 1980 album that had previously yielded “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” Queen’s other #1 single. Those songs are both brief toe-dip experiments in different genres, and yet both of them find ways to broadcast Freddie Mercury’s enormous, outsized personality all over the place. That’s a gift.
John Deacon played almost every instrument on “Another One”: Bass, lead and rhythm guitar, piano, percussion. Roger Taylor’s drums were a loop. Brian May made some of the sound effects, running his guitar through an effects processor called the Eventide Harmonizer. And Mercury sings hard over all of it, riding the beat while pushing his voice against it, using it as a percussive effect. When Queen finished recording the song, Deacon was surprised at how hard it sounded. So he ditched his original lyrics, which were about being a cowboy, and wrote new ones for Mercury to sing. The lyrics in the finished version are hard to make out, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the freaked-out knife-edge feeling that they conjure.
If you look at the “Another One Bites The Dust” lyrics on paper, they’re pretty dumb. The first verse is a short gangster-movie narrative. In the second, Mercury is pissed off after a breakup. In the third, the song becomes a sort of inspirational anthem about standing up against all the forces that are trying to bring you down. It doesn’t hang together. It doesn’t have to. Instead, the song works as a disconnected paranoid freakout, a breathless pant. The image of bullets ripping out of a doorway doesn’t really need context. All it needs is Mercury spitting it out like it’s poison.
It works. The Queen of “Another One” understand how disco operates. The song’s sound is brittle and minimal. Roger Taylor doesn’t really get any drum fills in. The metronomic insistence of the song helps it snap, and it’s certainly possible to imagine Mercury’s vocal as diva histrionics. But where disco was so often about exulting in your own personal euphoria, “Another One Bites The Dust” finds transcendence in fear and stress and violence. “Another One Bites The Dust” presents tension and relief at the same time. It presents tension as relief.
Brian May’s sound effects — the rising drones, the echoing thunder booms, the ominous ripples — give “Another One” a weight and a presence, an almost cinematic mise en scène. There’s nothing outwardly rock about “Another One.” When the guitar isn’t making sound effects or echoing Deacon’s bass riff, it’s doing scratchy funk things. But “Another One” does present a toughness that most of Queen’s arena-rock peers weren’t even attempting at the time.
On “Another One Bites The Dust,” Freddie Mercury yips and howls and grunts. He seems lost in the push-pull of the song’s beat, his words becoming half-nonsense exclamations. This might be why some church groups thought Queen were using “Another One” to put out backwards-masked subliminal messages about smoking weed. After all, with a song this disconnected and nonlinear, what else could the intent be? The members of Queen like to tell the story about Michael Jackson, backstage at a Queen show, advising the band to release “Another One Bites The Dust” as a single. Maybe it’s no coincidence that Jackson adapted a hard, percussive, freaked-out singing style of his own shortly thereafter.
In retrospect, “Another One Bites The Dust” makes its own kind of sense. It’s an extremely coked-out record, a record that grabs and embraces that cocaine feeling where paranoia becomes its own kind of euphoria. The members of Queen were indulging in plenty of their own excesses at the time. It shows through in the best ways. “Another One Bites The Dust” is a really good cocaine record.
In the US, “Another One Bites The Dust” made noise in spaces where Queen had never been before. Black radio loved the record, and it peaked at #2 on Billboard‘s Hot Soul Singles chart. It also peaked at #2 on Hot Disco Singles, which means it was getting actual club play, also a new thing for Queen. If “Another One Bites The Dust” was a play for Michael Jackson’s audience, it worked beautifully. It did not, however, continue to work. Queen tried to go in a funkier, more synthetic direction on their 1982 album Hot Space. It was a relative brick, though the single “Body Language” peaked at #11 in the US. Hot Space caused a backlash in Queen’s old rock fans. Queen worked to win them back by returning to theatrical hard rock on 1984’s The Works.
In the years after “Another One Bites The Dust,” Queen played to absurdly huge crowds around the globe — including apartheid-era South Africa, a move that drew its own backlash. They recorded the soundtracks to the movies Flash Gordon and Highlander. They played the Live Aid set so legendary that it was pretty much replicated moment-for-moment in Bohemian Rhapsody. Queen remained enormously successful up until 1991, when Freddie Mercury died from complications of AIDS. He was 45, and he kept recording with the band for as long as he was physically able.
For all Queen’s success, though, they did not remain a significant pop-chart presence in the US. During Mercury’s lifetime, Queen never had another top-10 hit after “Another One Bites The Dust.” (Queen will appear in this column again, but only in sampled form.) A year after Mercury died, however, Queen’s 1975 single “Bohemian Rhapsody” once again became a hit after showing up in the 1992 film Wayne’s World. Reissued to capitalize on the movie’s success, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which had previously peaked at #9, reached a new peak of #2. (It’s a 9.)
Since Mercury’s death, Queen have remained a hugely successful legacy act. In April 1992, the surviving members of Queen played a massive all-star Mercury tribute at London’s Wembley Stadium, with stars like Axl Rose, George Michael, and Elton John singing Mercury’s parts. In the years that followed, Queen kept performing and releasing music with different singers. For a few years, they toured with the former Free/Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers. In more recent years, they’ve been playing with the American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert. Brian May, weirdly, has become a prominent astrophysicist. And of course, there’s the aforementioned Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen biopic that, despite sucking, won Oscars and grossed hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s possible that Queen are more popular now than they were when Mercury was alive.
BONUS BEATS: On the pioneering 1981 DJ-mix single “The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel,” Grandmaster Flash scratched Chic’s “Good Times” bassline into Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust” bassline. Here it is:
(Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five have never had a top-10 hit on the Hot 100. Their highest-charting single, 1982’s “The Message” — a song that will eventually appear in this column in sampled form — peaked at #62.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s video of “Weird Al” Yankovic performing his 1981 “Another One Bites The Dust” parody “Another One Rides The Bus” on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow Show:
(Yankovic’s highest-charting single is 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” a parody of another song that will end up in this column. It peaked at #9, and it’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: For years, “Another One Bites The Dust” was the entrance music for the pro wrestler known as the Junkyard Dog. Here’s JYD coming to the ring to the song:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s MC Hammer’s video for his 1988 single “Let’s Get It Started,” which briefly samples “Another One Bites The Dust”:
(MC Hammer’s highest-charting single, 1990’s “Pray,” peaked at #2. It’s a 4.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Flying Lotus briefly sampling “Another One Bites The Dust” on the 2014 Snoop Dogg collab “Dead Man’s Tetris”:
(Snoop Dogg will eventually appear in this column.)