Songs of 84: Radio Ga Ga / Queen

I have listened to Queen for as long as I can remember. However, I think this is the first song of theirs I remember hearing.

For a band that proudly announced on its album sleeves in the 70s that “nobody played synthesizer”, they embraced the technology headlong (no pun intended) in the 80s. It has been argued that the band only did so because everybody else was doing it, however they managed to use them in such a way that it set them apart from the rest of the pop records of the day. Old school Queen fans around the world winced, as Brian May, regarded as one of the great British guitar heroes, was reduced to playing some modest slide guitar in the last half of the track.

The song itself was one of the longest songs they ever committed to a 7 inch platter. Having released “Bohemian Rhapsody” in its unedited form in 1975 (at 5 minutes 55 seconds), Radio Ga Ga clocked in at 5:47, unedited from the original LP version. With the track’s long outro, it was most likely faded out early by DJs looking to cut to the news on the hour.

The track started as a music bed assembled by Roger Taylor as an experiment with some new synthesisers, intended for his upcoming solo project. Once the other members of the band heard it, they jumped on it for inclusion on their 1984 album “The Works”. John Deacon worked out a funky bassline, and Freddie polished the lyrics.

Radio Ga Ga was initially inspired by Roger Taylor’s infant son Rufus, describing a song on the radio he didn’t like as “radio ca ca”. Taylor wrote the lyric as a statement on the state of radio which, in the face of the rise of formats like MTV, looked as though it was in a major battle to remain relevant. It was perhaps a little premature, as in 2024 radio is still alive and kicking, despite new threats from the internet.

Taylor made reference to some of the landmark events in the formats history, such as Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast, and Winston Churchill’s “Finest Hour” speech, while proclaiming radio’s unique power to inspire and entertain.

Ironically, for a song inspired by a non-visual medium, the video made for MTV was grand and lavish. It was based on the 1927 expressionist sci-film by Fritz Lang “Metropolis”, and featured thousands of extras on set from the Queen Official Fan Club providing the synchronised handclaps in the chorus.

If you already own all the albums in Queen’s voluminous discography, do you really need to go and find their singles? For the most part, “no”, but in the case of Radio Ga Ga, it is a resounding “yes”.

The aforementioned old school rockers who took to Queen in their early heavy guitar period will be pleased to know that the B-side was a Brian May track called “I Go Crazy” (pictured), which didn’t appear on an album until the 2011 deluxe reissue of “The Works”. It features some first class Brian May heavy rock guitar playing, with a bit more slide guitar thrown in for good measure. It’s great fun and some light relief from the deep profundity of the A-side.

Radio Ga Ga charted at number 2 in Australia and was the last top 5 hit of their career, until the re-release of Bohemian Rhapsody in the wake of Freddie Mercury’s untimely passing in 1991. It remains an enduring radio staple and a crowd participation favourite during their live sets.

David Kowalski, a writer and podcaster, is celebrating songs that turn 40 this year.

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