Queen photographed in London in 1973. Michael Putland/Getty Images
The band's members weigh in on why the two irresistible anthems still move us four decades after their recording.
The rhythm is irresistible: stomp, stomp, clap, stomp, stomp clap. The chorus is a call to arms for anyone who has ever been beaten up, pushed down or disregarded: "We are the champions/ No time for losers cause we are the champions/ Of the world." When Queen's double A-side single "We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions" dropped on Oct. 7, 1977, the two songs represented one of the strangest chart bids ever, even for a band best known for baroque, operatic rock with a theatrical flair.
"Rock You" is a barely two-minute, pugnacious, percussion-heavy pseudo-threat that features no traditional instruments, save for looped handclaps and boot stomps, until guitarist Brian May's searing solo shows up in the final 45 seconds. And "Champions"? A soaring, flowery ballad about defiance at getting sand kicked in your face and still emerging triumphant, which owes as much to Bach as it does to The Beatles.
And yet, here we are, four decades on and both songs are not just a permanent part of the rock lexicon, but pump-up anthems that are still played on an almost-daily basis on radio and at just about every major sporting event on the planet -- transcending time, fashion and their own seeming obstacles to popularity. (Billboard just ranked "We Will Rock You" at the very top of its 100 Greatest Jock Jams of All Time list.)
For a group that already had one of rock's most iconic hit singles in "Bohemian Rhapsody," the one-two punch of "Rock You" and "Champions" has proven to be just as large a part of Queen's enduring legacy, fittingly serving as their closing numbers at every live show they now play.
Billboard spoke to founding members May and drummer Roger Taylor, as well as current singer Adam Lambert and a sports writer from the band's era, about the origins of the songs, what makes them such an indelible part of rock history and how a band whose lead singer favored boas over baseball have become the kings of Jock Jam Nation.
How a Strange Idea Turned Into an Indelible Rock Treasure
Can we talk about the fact that "We Will Rock You" is essentially an a cappella song except for Brian’s solo? That was a really weird choice for a rock single. What were you thinking?
Roger Taylor: It only has one instrument apart from the voice: There's no bass, no real drums -- just feet and handclaps and only that guitar at the very end. It's quite an odd song. It was designed as a sort of song for the audience, a joining-in song. But we never really envisioned that it would be taken up by sports. It's one of delights of... I've spent my life being in a band, so it sidelined all sports. I reckoned I could meet more girls being in a band than playing soccer.
Brian May: There were two occasions that inspired it. One I've spoken about a lot, which was at Bingley Hall [near Birmingham, England] where the audience sang every song and then we went off stage and they carried on singing and then they sang [the de facto Liverpool F.C. football anthem] "You'll Never Walk Alone." It was a transitional time in rock. You went to see Led Zeppelin and The Who, you'd bang your head but you didn't sing along, that wasn't cool. This was an invitation to sing along.
A light went off and I thought, "We shouldn't fight this, we should embrace it!" People didn't do that at the time at rock concerts. I thought, "How interesting -- if I wrote something, the audience could participate it to the point that they could lead the band?" I went to sleep and woke up with "We Will Rock You" in my head. When you're at a show you can hardly move, but you can stomp your feet and chant and clap and lead us.
Do you remember where the "Rock You" rhythm came from?
May: I don't know where the actual tune came from. It was lurking in my head and I wanted to do something about the three ages of man: the hopeful child, the big brave man in the prime of his life and the old man who has learned to accept his place in the universe. It's prophetic, because now I'm in stage 3, then I was in stage 1.4. The other part was that I remembered the old Boston Garden, which was all wooden beams and wooden floor, and when when the crowd made noise during the encore it was like thunder. That sound I heard was in my head and the only question was how to make it in the studio?
Were you concerned the band would think you were nuts?
May: Cut to we're in the studio in Wessex and I'm nervous about telling the guys: "So, there's no drums or bass, just foot stomps, claps and vocals for most of it." So we stamped on these boards in this old church where we recorded and it made a good noise and I thought, "stamp here and clap and we'll build it up a million times so it sounds like a huge audience." I put different delays on each -- they're not multiples of each other -- and it's not an echo chamber and it just gets bigger and bigger and as time goes on it gets sloppy, so it sounds more and more like an audience that's scattered around. We did that and the we did the same with the vocals, we pretended to be other people until it became like a crowd.
I was really pushing the boundaries of what I knew had been done in terms of creating live sound in the studio. I didn’t want it to be a normal song where you pause for guitar solo, so we say everything and then the guitar solo kicks in. That was odd.
It's one of the most stripped-down songs in rock history. How did you even come up with the concept?
Taylor: Those are exactly the words I would use: "stripped down." You couldn't get a more minimal song, it's kind of tribal and primitive. We caught the zeitgeist of the time, the mood, the punk thing was coming along and it was kind of our reaction to it. We'd always done very complicated, intricate records before that that ended up becoming very layered and complex. We had another song on that album, News of the World, called "Sheer Heart Attack" that was kind of punky. And another track called "Sleeping on the Sidewalk" that was a very straightforward, one-take blues. We were consciously making a simpler album.
May: It worked like a dream, but in different ways that we expected. But it did work and soon after that the audience were doing the stomp, stomp, clap thing. Every kid can now play it on drums.
"Rock You" has to be a drummer's dream, too, right? Make all the jokes you want about drummers, but this one is basically all percussion.
Taylor: I have to make it swing, so I kind of conducted. It was Brian’s idea: "What is the simplest beat that could propel it and you could join in with?" And that’s what we came up with. He wrote three verses with a very simple chorus. We did the footsteps and handclaps and recorded them over and over again and then tracked it a lot of times. He did these complicated maps to get the delays right so it made it sound like a lot of feet and a lot of hands. We weren't just recording 30 sets of hands and feet, it was getting the delays between them right.
May: Roger was a little worried that there were no drums. But Freddie was up for it. "Okay, tell me how it goes," he said. "I will nail it." Which, as always, he did. We did two or three takes and we were done. You give Freddie one thing, but you get 10 times back. He amplified it.
Can you paint a picture of what it looked like to record those percussive elements?
Taylor: We're in the middle of the studio, we had the Sex Pistols' drum riser, which was wooden and was good for the feet stomps and a grand piano which we were all sitting on, lid down. We were all wearing boots and we stamped our feet on the drum riser and then clapped our hands. We recorded a bunch of takes and then Brian was responsible for the maps.
The "Rock You" video is also notable because it looks like you filmed it in the frozen tundra, which looks miserable. Was it?
May: I remember it vividly because the track was not slated to be a single, so the video was an afterthought. We had just made a video in the barn for "Spread Your Wings" and we were like, "Let's just do a quick one for 'We Will Rock You.'" At the time it upset me because I thought they were underestimating it. In the little bit of time we had left, an hour, we shot it and our noses were all red because it was freezing cold. There weren't more than a couple takes and nothing to really go with. I took the video to the studio and edited the fuck out of it and made a cut on every beat and used all the close-ups I could to make it spring to life. It was a makeshift video that says nothing about the song. Sometimes that's good because people can listen to it and spin their own stories in their head.
Taylor: We shot it on the grounds of a country house I'd just bought in Surrey and we hadn't completed the sale, so we weren't allowed in the house. We figured, "we might as well shoot it here." It was absolutely freezing cold and we did three takes. I had on those terrible little white and black Wellington boots. I regret those boots.
The "Champions" video has a very different feel. What were you going for with that?
Taylor: For that one we shot it on Drury Lane in London at the New London Theatre. It was around 1,000 people from our fan club. We got them to do it 50 times, exhausting.
Unlike "Rhapsody," both songs are somewhat short, coming in at times that are more apt for pop songs than rock anthems.
May: Part of it was a feeling we had at the time. We had been through the huge baroque thing which had its peak in "Bohemian Rhapsody." We felt we'd taken it as far as we could and the danger was we wouldn't get out and would paint ourselves into a corner. The whole idea was to strip it back down. We were influenced by the 1950s, because in the 1950s once you'd stated the purpose of the song and done your verse, verse and then chorus it was done. You didn't have to press the point. If you've said everything you need to say, that's the end.
Taylor: Always wanted them to be together, they just seem to work together. "We Will Rock You" we didn't think was a single. We almost saw it like an introduction to "We Are the Champions," which is a more classic, very grand song. We were very aware that we didn't want to be labeled as a glam rock/prog rock dinosaur, so we wanted to absolutely consciously change and we tried to keep changing.
Those songs came out just as punk was starting to break in England, was the scene on your radar? Did it influence them in any way?
Taylor: The big thing here was the Sex Pistols. We were very aware. We were in the same studio as the Pistols for the album and they were around at the time. I was drawn to the energy of it... I understood the idea and danger and testosterone.
Was it your idea for radio stations to play the songs as one piece or did they do that on their own?
May: In a way I had fought for that on the album. They are consecutive to start the album and I thought it would work, though there were a bit of arguments [about it]: "Are radio stations even going to play a song with no drums?" I had a feeling it would work on radio. And then we put out the "Champions" single, and in England and Europe "We Will Rock You" was the b-side. The American record company decided to make it a double a-side, and a radio station in New York, WNEW, made their own lacquers with both songs on the same side so they could just play it [consecutively]. "We Will Rock You" kind of fought its way out.
Taylor: As I remember it, they really sort of seemed to get that. I remember hearing them played together a lot -- and there's no gap on the album, so in the sequence of songs, you expect to hear the next song.
Contrary to what some people might think neither song is really about you, Queen, boasting about how badass you are. They're really about your fans, right?
Taylor: "We Are the Champions" is meant to be "we," as in "all of us," collectively, not us the band. It's a shame that some people understandably had the wrong take on that. "No time for losers" is not the kindest line, but it’s really more of a "we all of us." It's a celebration.
From Rocking Pep Rallies and Basketball Games to the Killing it on the Stage
Do you remember the first time you heard "Rock You"?
Adam Lambert: I don't even know if I could name the first time because it is sort of ever present. Both songs are the type that you grow up hearing at sporting events. I remember being at school pep rallies or hearing it in a commercial. I was aware of the song before I was ever even consciously aware of it, if that makes sense. It's part of the iconic nature of both of those songs, they're everywhere. I think the first time I asked "What is that band?" was when I heard "Bohemian Rhapsody" in Wayne's World. My dad told me it was Queen, and he played me "Champions" and "We Will Rock You" and I was like, "Oh, I've heard those songs before" and you start stringing it together.
Dan Epstein [music journalist who writes for Rolling Stone, and author of Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s.]: I’m old enough to remember when both of those songs came out and were hits and I was a Queen fan at the time. But I thought, "Oh wow, these are two new cool songs by Queen," but I didn't think of any additional situation where they would be useful, or that they'd become these jock jam anthems.
The first time I really realized there was something up was when I went to a friend's older brother's high school basketball game a few months after they came out and people were doing the womp-bomp-bomp thing on the bleachers every time their team started to pick up steam. I think it’s such an easy, yet powerful rhythm, with the rhythmic statement that anybody can do it. There's no polyrhythms involved. I remember being so amazed by how cool that sounded amid the clatter of some metal high school gym bleachers and the echo of the room and the pause before the final hit. The tempo of it just worked with the echo of the room.
Queen was playing arenas by this point and I'm guessing they told you it was designed to resonate with an arena crowd. Shortly after that game I started living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I was going to all the University of Michigan sports events and I would hear it at hockey and basketball games. If you got a couple people doing it in a quiet moment it spread like wildfire around the arena. Everyone picked up on it. It was such a straightforward statement of intent, which is why I can see how it works for sporting events.
What struck you as different about them?
Lambert: I think they're very sing-along-able. Those hooks in both songs are very easy to grasp for anybody, whether you’re a singer or not, even though they're 100 percent rock 'n roll. That's what Queen are, though at the same time they were a really pop band. The definition of pop is something really accessible. I think they understood how to connect with people and they had their audience in mind and were not as self-indulgent as some other acts at that time. They were really thinking about their fans, which was super ahead of their time. In the history of rock and roll, there's this thing about having all this integrity and not selling out, and Queen figured out how to affect people and get under their skin while doing that.
Where did you hear them as a kid?
Lambert: During the Super Bowl. My dad would have a party with his co-workers and you'd hear them in between segments of the game or any sporting event that I went to as a kid. It was not my favorite thing to do [Laughs.]
What is your favorite part of "Rock You?"
Lambert: The groove is sick. It's so fresh and it’s still fresh now. There's something about it when you're just stomping to the drums and then you're in the cut. It's fun. It's a fun song!
Do you have a favorite line in "Champions?"
Lambert: There’s a lyric I've always identified with: "I've had my share of sand kicked in my face but I'm coming through." That feels very me. I've made a couple mistakes, my story hasn’t been perfect. I've had my share of flub-ups in my life and career, but to stand there and say "I'm proud of myself and of us"? And to try to carry a little piece of the torch that Freddie carried, and was so brilliant at. It's an honor and I feel a sense of pride for that. I always think about him when I'm performing... the legacy he left is massive.
Soccer Chants to Football Rants, the Making of the Ultimate Sports Anthems
"Champions" feels like such an unlikely song to become the kind of thing that bros sing as they put their arms around each other at football games, right?
Epstein: It's a fairly sophisticated ballad, almost a torch song, and when Liza Minelli sang it at Freddie's memorial concert it was the perfect touch. It's such a Liza Minelli kind of song -- and you don't think of Liza Minelli songs in terms of sporting events.
I have this vivid memory of when I realized it was taking on another life when I was reading a recap of the 1978 NCAA basketball final. It was Duke and Kentucky, and Kentucky won but there was something they mentioned in the article about how Duke fans came together after the game to sing "We Are the Champions." They're not the champions, but that pulled a whole new meeting out of the song: "Fuck it, we didn't win, but we went down fighting and we gave it our best, so in a way we are the champions as well!" That always stuck with me: that bravado in the song and that bloodied but unbowed attitude.
There's a long history of British sports fans singing songs like that... but the sports culture is not like that in the U.S., and it's never been about coming together to sing a song. Unless it's "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" or a college fight song, which are very upbeat and festive. "Champions" doesn't fit that mold at all. Factor in the inherent homophobia of American sports culture and yet here is this song being sung by this incredibly flamboyant bisexual man who was clearly taking cues from theater as much from the sporting tradition. I always thought irony of that was rather delicious.
May: One, I think it's a great song with an absolutely killer chorus. It's very triumphal. It fits the occasion, whatever the occasion might be. We always end our show with it because it’s the best last song we know. I was very surprised that sporting events took it up. I never thought about that. I remember Brian saying, "Like they do at football matches." We weren't aiming at sports arenas, but we'll take it.
Did it surprise the band that these two somewhat peculiar songs have become the ultimate sports anthems?
May: Honestly, no. It doesn't surprise me. I don't think Freddie or I thought of them in those terms. We were thinking about our audience and what it would feel like for them to be champions. That is where the songs have completely taken on a life of their own. It's logical. In a football or baseball stadium you have two opposing teams that want to whip up that esprit de corps, and they are the perfect rallying songs. In concert when we play them, we're all on the same team. It's about having confidence in yourself.
I remember being shocked when Freddie first sang ["Champions"], thinking, "Everyone will feel like this is them!" Perhaps there's a certain arrogance to them, but it's really about believing in yourself and that will get you to the top. The greatest compliment the world has ever paid us is that these songs have become woven into people’s lives, rather than just being on a record. These songs trigger feelings inside people. What a wonderful privilege to go around the world now and feel that energy coming out of the crowd.
Why do you think they're still so popular today?
Lambert: I've always found it ironic that they are these bro, masculine soundtrack at these games or events... it's almost like you want to ask, "Do you know who is singing that? Do you know what he's about? Have you seen some of his looks back in the day?" It illustrates that the '80s was a different time.
I feel like the emotion with both is that sense of pride and empowerment and unity that’s so great... that they were written as not I, but "we." The band was really clever, and they wanted them to feel inclusive, everyone in the arena feels like they are part of these songs. That's something Queen did early on that a lot of other bands weren't doing... the clapping and stomping, Freddie did it with the call-and-response thing. They made the audience feel part of the band.
May: It does still sometimes bring a big lump to me throat. It's impossible not to have the hairs on your back go up. I feel so privileged... it's the greatest warmth that you can get back from the world. The youngest generation assume these songs have always been there... that no one wrote them.
Have you been at sports events where they were played?
May: One of my favorites was when I went to see the Chicago Bulls versus the Lakers, and you had Michael Jordan going against Magic Johnson and that was outrageous to see. But then every time they stopped the game they played "We Will Rock You." I just smiled a lot.
What does it feel like to play them every night?
Lambert: One of the things I love so much about being on tour with Queen is that they have a really deep catalog. It's a two-hour show so there's only time for so many songs, and there are so many hits that you're basically doing a show full of hit music. They are songs everyone knows, and as a performer that's what you want. You're performing and they're singing along and it makes them captive, it's not a passive experience... It's the one-two punch that really does the trick. It's also a really fitting way to close a show, with everyone singing "We Are the Champions" and the confetti is coming down. It's my tradition to put on a crown, a la Freddie. It's a great note to leave on.
They're also the ultimate encore songs. Do they sound or feel different to you today when you play them?
May: By the time we play them, we've done the whole show, and Adam has strewn the planet with impossible vocals. I think, actually -- without wishing to sound too up meself -- Roger and I are playing better than we were in the old days, By that point in the show, we definitely feel proud, and like we've connected. People go nuts -- they make a big noise and they've done everything we asked them to. It's a bonus. Everyone knows it's coming, you know what’s going to happen. But when it comes down to that, people know we’re home now.
It's just always great. They're beyond hits. We don't have to sell them in any way.