Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’ (written by Freddie Mercury) always intrigued me. Though I can’t say I loved it, I’ve always been impressed by how stirring its Chorus is, and how gutsy the over-the-top lyrics are. It takes nerve to write an anthem like this… and own it.
Looking more closely at the song gave me a better idea of where its power comes from. (Please play and sing it; you’ll be glad you did.)
The first Verse is basically the singer feeling sorry for himself.
I’ve paid my dues
Time after time
I’ve done my sentence
But committed no crime
And bad mistakes
I’ve made a few
I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face
But I’ve come through
(And I need to go on and on, and on, and on)
This is sung to music that is much more Broadway or cabaret than rock. In fact, the melody reminds me of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Send In The Clowns’ (not a bad thing, but not what you expect from the Verse of an iconic rock anthem). Verse chords:
|| 4/4/ Cminor Gminor | Cminor Gminor | Cminor Gminor | Cminor Gminor | Eb Ab/Eb | Eb Ab/Eb | Eb Bb/D Cminor F7 |2/4 Bb |4/4 Ab/Bb C7 ||
What I find very interesting is that the song transitions from the above Verse right into ‘We Are The Champions’ etc. There’s no way to tell it’s going from ‘I’ to ‘We’. The singer goes from an intimate personal confession and transforms into the leader of ‘The Champions’ – with no verbal preparation. And you have to admit it works!
How? The music does the transitioning.
I’m not aware of any heavy rock song of the time or any other that fits this many key changes and non-traditional chords (for the genre) into so few bars. The soaring melody and highly dramatic chord changes (to the point, in the Queen style, of being campy) sell the unlikely transition.
The Verse’s quiet, intimate section only lasts for 6 bars before the drama begins in bar 7 (above)… The melody climbs up the scale, leading us to the C7, the V chord of the new key.
By the time he gets to that C7, Mercury is throwing the book away and just going for whatever feels right to him melodically and harmonically. And in this case ‘right’ means triumphant – the Chorus is a 9 bar thrill ride.
|| F Aminor | Dminor Bb C | F Aminor | Bb D/F# | Gminor | Gdim/Bb Edim7 | F Eb/G | Ab Bb | Bb6/C ||
It’s hard to imagine this Chorus being much more rousing. The melody, moving up and down fluidly through a range of an octave and a fourth, is accompanied by chords that maximize the excitement.
Note the use of diminished chords (Gdim/Bb, E dim) and suspended chords (D/F#, Eb/G, Bb6/C) – not the kind of chords you normally hear in a heavy rock song. One of the reasons this works is because the bass notes are emphasized by being doubled by Brian Mays’ overdriven guitar, thereby giving the bass movement more weight than the actual chord qualities (which nonetheless are heard and do their job).
One particularly interesting Chorus moment is when, in bar 7, leading us to the wrap-up, the melody is A and F – over an F chord; very common – and then it repeats those notes… but over an Eb/G chord… very unusual.
The lyric in the 2nd Verse is also bold – it asks us to sympathize with the rich and famous rock star.
I’ve taken my bows
And my curtain calls
You brought me fame and fortune and everything that goes with it
I thank you all
But it’s been no bed of roses
No pleasure cruise
I consider it a challenge before the whole human race
And I ain’t gonna lose
(And I need just go on and on, and on, and on)
Again, Mercury puts himself out there as a full rock star… and then invites the audience to join him… WE Are The Champions. Nervy.
Also, for the transition from the end of the Chorus back to the Verse he throws a curve, out of nowhere going to Fminor (| Fminor Bb/F | Fminor Bb/F | Fminor Bb/C|); ending with a Bb/C that you’d expect would go… pretty much anywhere but Cminor… which is where it goes.
Only one person in the world could or would have written this song this way. Other than the beginning of the Verse, here’s nothing generic about it. And even the beginning of the Verse serves as a big red herring; it doesn’t prepare us – it fools us, sets us up… until we quickly discover that we’re in for a very different experience than what we expected.
That sense of surprise, of not expecting what comes next, characterizes the whole song. By risking the ridiculous, Queen flirts with the sublime.
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