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Music

The Story Behind The Song: Queen enthral and scare with the polemical 'Hammer to Fall'

Many acts played at Live Aid, but Queen was Live Aid. Ask anyone who played there, and they will tell you that Queen was the ultimate group to perform on the stage.

The band went through a medley of songs Freddie Mercury, Roger Taylor and Brian May had written for the group, veering from the introspective (‘Radio Gaga’) to the universal (‘Hammer To Fall’). In their own explosive way, the band commanded the live stages, creating a strangely intimate atmosphere where the four men huddled together in a line, each of them keeping a close eye on what the other person was playing.

Drummer Roger Taylor remembered: “I remember looking up and seeing the whole place just going completely bonkers in unison, and thinking, ‘Oh – this is going well!’” He was enjoying the process, but it must have been galling for him when he was asked if the band had ulterior motives. “No, it wasn’t a career move,” he replied, “but of course, that’s in the back of everybody’s mind.”

Out of the five numbers, ‘Hammer To Fall’ had the greatest weight tied to it, because it was the most concerned with the well being of the world in question. Guitarist Brian May was always the most thoughtful of the members and showed the greatest interest in political affairs. ’39’ cautioned listeners to the dangers of hardware, especially in the terrains of space; ‘White Man’ served as his absolution for his ancestors that had murdered so many across the globe; ‘Teo Torriate’ congratulated the world’s desire to come together under the banner of music.

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‘Hammer To Fall’ was something else entirely. It was written at a time when nuclear weapons were building upon American land, ready to fire whenever they felt their enemies were crossing from unfriendly into out and out aggressive. Britain had long shown their allegiances to America, yet they were closer to the Russian missiles that would signal the beginnings of the Third World War. May, always that bit more sensitive than the other members, felt that the band needed to make a statement, although he later realised that the tune symbolised death as a whole.

The hammer didn’t just represent the USSR, but the presence of the Grim Reaper turning up to claim his next victim. Death would walk into the band’s headquarters within the next six years, as May and Taylor asked themselves what their purpose was in the wake of Mercury’s untimely death from AIDS.

But in 1985, all four members were alive and well, particularly Mercury, who was embodying the tactics and the poise of a panther in high pursuit. During their performance at Live Aid, the singer spent much of the time winking and waltzing at the camera, clearly luxuriating in the attention. He was buoyed by three powerful musicians, clearly acknowledging their place in the great canon of performances. They had a moustached frontman, all pecks and bravura, showing that the band could sing with tremendous muscle when it suited them.

Keenly aware of Mercury’s delivery, Paul Rodgers decided to sing it in a slower, more stately, style in 2005. He joined May onstage, as the two harmonised over the lyrics, both of them grateful for surviving the Cold War. Rodgers had decided to perform Queen’s catalogue in his style, but fans in Argentina and Spain wanted a singer who was closer in spirit to Mercury.

The band found a more permanent replacement in Adam Lambert in 2011, who is still fronting the band as of the time of print. May and Taylor were also responsible for overlooking a film, Bohemian Rhapsody. No, it wasn’t very good, but it did a good job of capturing the excitement of Live Aid as faithfully as they could.

“They (the filmmakers) recreated it so incredibly faithfully,” May recalled, “and to be there on that set was really spine chilling; it brought it all back. And at the time, we weren’t aware of what an epoch-making thing it was, really. We came off [thinking], ‘Well, that went kind of OK.’”

It was more than ok. Out of the acts that performed in London, only U2 came close to matching the impact Queen made, and theirs was more of a happy accident than a stage set of densely performed material that was pieced together like a master chess player plotting their next attack.

Strangely, ‘Hammer To Fall’ has more pathos in 2022 than it did in 1985. No matter the development, nor the lessons learned in the decades since casting the shackles of the 1980s behind, the world is once again facing a war that could bury it deep within the ground. It takes the writings of protest singers to realise what a fatal mistake that is.