Brian May, left, and Adam Lambert of Queen + Adam Lambert perform in 2014 in Los Angeles.(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)
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Review: ‘We Will Rock You’ / ‘We Are The Champions’ — How Queen’s one-two punch became part of rock music lexicon

Two minutes and thirty-four seconds.

On May 1, that’s how long it took Queen and Adam Lambert to perform a heartwarming musical tribute to millions of healthcare workers around the world — two minutes and thirty-four seconds that galvanized viewers to donate more than $7 million in support of the COVID-19 Solidarity Response, according to YouTube. 

The overwhelming response proves that the well-known classic has stood the test of time, along with its faster, equally anthemic counterpart. 

You likely know these songs — or at least you’re aware of them — that’s how interwoven they are into the fabric of our daily lives. The cadence is infectious, a stamp-stamp-clap rhythm that is recognizable everywhere from stadiums to school rallies. It ends with a fiery guitar solo before segueing into its slower ballad counterpart.

And no matter the venue or occasion, the crowd sings along, as it has for more than 40 years.

The songs in question are two of Queen’s most well-known numbers: The tracks of their 1977 double A-sided single, “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions.” Released on Oct. 7 of that year, “Rock You” and “Champions” were just the latest of many on the British band’s list of bestselling singles, including what is considered one of the most iconic songs of all time: “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

But the two songs are less elaborate than the 1975 quasi-operatic rock dirge, and they’re far shorter as well— “Rock You” clocks in at two minutes, “Champions,” just over three. Nevertheless, the tracks infiltrated their way into the public consciousness and remained there for over four decades. The single’s resulting album, “News of the World,” was the best-selling of Queen’s career.

Queen’s guitarist, Brian May, wrote the first track of the single, a song titled “We Will Rock You.” It’s loud, brash and features a loop of handclaps and stamping; when performed live, any audience can replicate it.

Both Roger Taylor’s energetic drumming and John Deacon’s iconic basslines are conspicuously absent from the instrumental. Besides the vocals of frontman Freddie Mercury, the only real instrument you hear is May’s guitar, which comes wailing in solo during the last 45 seconds of the song. 

It’s certainly an unusual artistic decision, one which May explained in a 2010 podcast with Terry Gross.

“I was thinking, ‘What can you give an audience that they could do while they’re standing there? They can stamp, and they can clap, and they can sing [a kind of] chant. To me, it was a united thing. It was an expression of strength,” May said

In the first verse of “We Will Rock You,” Mercury sings of a young boy aimlessly kicking his can all over the place, a child who doesn’t have a clue of what his future holds.

“Buddy, you’re a boy, make a big noise/Playing in the streets, gonna be a big man someday,” Mercury sings. Then he transitions into the explosive chorus — ”We will, we will, rock you!”

The rest of “Rock You” continues on a similar trajectory, telling the life story of this same individual. By the second verse, the street youth is now a fully grown man; vigorous, energetic with a goal in life and a banner to wave.

He’s not kicking cans anymore, and there’s a real purpose to his actions. But when verse three comes along, the subject is old and penniless and hasn’t made much progress from where he was in childhood. He’s still a “disgrace,” according to Mercury, and a restless, discontent one at that.

So looking solely at the life journey of this individual, “We Will Rock You” is a song about disappointment and vain ambition — although the return of the upbeat chorus somewhat contradicts this as an anthem of perseverance in the face of adversity.  

The song is catchy, but it’s also a bit vague.

Are the verses and chorus even linked together, or was the latter only added due to its mass appeal? Is it a story of achievement, or a tale of defeat?

“We Are The Champions” isn’t quite as ambiguous. Written by Freddie Mercury himself, “Champions” evokes a feeling of courage and upliftment similar to that of Frank Sinatra’s power ballad, “My Way.” It begins with a piano solo, takes flight with the chorus, comes back to earth in the second verse and soars again in the outro.

“We are the champions, my friends,” Mercury declares in the chorus, “and we keep on fighting ’til the end.”

He’s not only singing a song about unequivocal success and getting up despite having sand kicked into your face. He’s also telling the audience to pull no punches and have no shame in the aftermath of a hard-won battle. When you’re one of the champions, you don’t have time for any losers. And if you’ve ever felt pushed aside or disregarded, then “Champions” is the song for you.

“We Are The Champions” has always been popular as a victory chant among sports fans, not only because of its triumphant nature but because of its striking ability to unify. “We Will Rock You” has a similar effect, and when played back-to-back, they’re inspiring, electrifying and utterly unforgettable.

Take the scene at the 1985 Live Aid benefit, for example, when a crowd of 70,000 swayed in unison to “Champions,” or when “We Will Rock You” closed out the 2012 London Olympics. The sheer power of Queen’s music, and Queen by extension, is almost chilling to behold.

Various forms of media have since covered, sampled, and parodied both songs, including a humorous performance of “We Are The Champions” in the 2005 film “Chicken Little” and a rendition of “We Will Rock You” by British boy band Five.

So what was the inspiration behind these two top-ten hits?

In the same 2010 podcast, May stated that Queen got the idea of producing songs that were easy to involve an audience with from a gig they played in Birmingham. That night the crowd had sung along to their performance. To May, that signified a need for songs that audiences could participate in, hence the memorable choruses of “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions.”

“I think most people don’t even realize that I wrote [We Will Rock You],” The guitarist said in the podcast. “Most people don’t realize that it was written. It’s become one of those things that people think was always there. You know, it goes back into prehistory. So in a way, that’s the best compliment you could have for a song.”

But as widespread as “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions” are today, it would be inaccurate to say that the songs were always universally beloved. In particular, the English media saw “Champions” as being arrogant, boastful and incredibly self-aggrandizing.

“And only Queen could come up with the title, ‘We Are The Champions,'” a reporter commented at the 1977 “News Of The World” launch party. “I mean, where’s the modesty gone?”

“Well, there isn’t any,” Roger Taylor said. “No modesty whatsoever. After the slagging off we get from the English music press, I mean, who cares? We’ve got nothing to lose now.”

It sounds rash, but perhaps that carefree, take-no-prisoners approach was what gave birth to a worldwide top-ten hit and two of the most recognizable songs in music history. After all, it’s been 42 years since Queen released that Oct. 7 single, and almost as long since the original lineup performed it.

We still know how to sing along.