We Will Rock You!
We Are The Champions!
On October 7, 1977, Elektra Records (in the U.S.) and EMI (in the U.K.) released what has become perhaps the greatest two-sided single this side of the Beatles’ “Come Together”/ “Something.”
I’m talking about the campy yet powerful rock ballad “We Are The Champions,” backed with the harder, chant-rock anthem “We Will Rock You,” by none other than the legendary (I know I use that word often on this site, but never where it’s not deserved) British group Queen.
This Saturday, those double anthems turn 40 years old, serving as yet another reminder of the epic nature and timelessness of the music that came out of 1977, arguably the greatest year in modern music history (there are at least four other 40th Anniversary tributes on this site in 2017 that would further attest to that).
This two-sided Queen single certainly contributed to 1977’s story and was a smash hit well into 1978. It sold two million copies upon its initial release and peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 four months into a six-month chart stay.
During its lengthy first chart run, Billboard only listed “We Are The Champions” as the single, thus “We Will Rock You” did not chart. But there’s no denying that both sides of the 45 were hits. Radio, particularly rock stations, usually played both together, just as they were segued on their parent album, News of the World, with “Rock You” preceding “Champions.”
Despite Billboard’s and other trade publications’ initial chart omission of “Rock You,” music history publications, particularly Joel Whitburn’s books which chronicle the Billboard charts, have been rewritten to include both songs as a singular entry – making “We Will Rock You” likely the only song afforded such recognition despite not being listed on the Hot 100 during that 1977-78 run.
Billboard, however, redeemed itself fifteen years later when the songs became a hit a second time. This time the chart authority listed them as a joint entry when they re-entered the Hot 100, coincidentally, at the same position the single had debuted in October 1977 – No. 87.
Despite its re-release and the band’s newfound popularity (especially after their “Bohemian Rhapsody” had been an even bigger hit in 1992 than it was in ’76), “Rock You”/”Champions” would only make it to No. 52 in its 1992 chart run.
Still, the ubiquity of the double-sided hit that is “We Will Rock You”/”We Are The Champions” cannot be overstated. Generations after both of its chart lives, stadiums and arenas worldwide are still filled with throngs of people at sporting events belting out both songs’ familiar refrains, typically as a mark of victory or score by the home team, or simply to inspire the team and their fans.
When you think about it, who among us doesn’t enjoy being part of a chorus of thousands of people singing in unison to an easy-to-remember (lyrically and melodically) tune while soaking up and sloshing expensive beers as your favorite team celebrates its successes on the field. Few things can be more unifying for as many people.
The late Freddie Mercury, Queen’s mercurial ex-front man, likely had that in mind when he wrote “We Are The Champions.” He was once quoted as saying “I was thinking about football (likely the non-American variety we call soccer) when I wrote it. I wanted a participation song, something the fans could latch on to.”
Even more participative in nature than Mercury’s composition is “We Will Rock You,” written by guitarist Brian May, whose musical instrument is the only one heard in that anthem. Aside from his guitar and the band’s vocals, the song employs only foot-stomps and hand claps throughout most of its short two-minute length. The famous beat, that stomp-stomp-clap!, stomp-stomp-clap!, consists mainly of the band’s four members stomping and clapping, overdubbed many times with a delayed timing (not a reverb) that gave the impression that many more people were involved, hence the arena effect.
Both songs feature Mercury’s dramatic vocals, with “We Will Rock You” boasting an almost talk-singing (even rap) style, while “Champions” employs his famously high tenor/falsetto voice, along with the band’s famous harmonies backing him.
Lyrically, while both songs are about winning, the two approach the subject entirely differently, as their two writers likely had very different perspectives influencing them. Freddy Mercury’s “Champions” talks about the hardships one encounters to achieve victory, seemingly in life, with lines like “I’ve paid my dues, time after time. I’ve done my sentence, but committed no crime.” And later, “it’s been no bed of roses, no pleasure cruise.”
The companion song by May, “We Will Rock You,” covers the three phases of a man’s life in its three verses, and how in each phase, first boy, then young man and finally old man assumes or asserts his place in the world. It’s only the famous simple chorus that has been co-opted into a statement about winning (most people likely don’t remember the verses anyway and they’re hardly ever played or sung during the many sporting events in which people are rocking out to the tune).
But it is “Rock You” that has endured at those events even more so than the more radio-friendly “Champions.” As recently as 2009-10, the music publishing company BMI named “We Will Rock You” as the most-played song at sporting events. Marching bands obviously prefer it over the more ballad-like “Champions” to rev up their teams. Fans likely find it easier to chant its chorus than they do singing “Champions.”
When you really think about it, do any of us really dare challenge Freddie Mercury’s bombastic highs in “We Are The Champions”? We’d gladly take on the more accessible “We Will Rock You” any day.
Despite this distinction, both songs stand jointly in victory as the winningest two-sided single of the past 40 years. Few others come close. Even Queen tried the double A-sided approach with its later release, 1978’s “Bicycle Race”/”Fat Bottomed Girls,” but to much less avail.
Queen, however, would go on to have even bigger chart hits over the next three years, including two Number One hits in America, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites The Dust.”
But it’s the legacy of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions” that endures and whose 40th anniversary on October 7 warrants this djrobblog celebration and tribute.
So Happy 40th to these joint classic jams, and thank you Queen for allowing us to continue rocking out as champions!