Anyone who knows me for even a short while will probably discover that music is a big part of my life. I listen to music all the time, and I listen to a fairly eclectic mix of styles and artists. But as far as I’m concerned, in the great history of rock and roll, Queen stands at the pinnacle. As I frequently say, Queen is my “Shakespeare of Music.” That is, if I could listen to no other band for all eternity, the full Queen catalog would provide ample sustenance.
One of my favorite Queen songs is “Machines” from The Works. In the diverse pantheon of great Queen songs, this probably isn’t one of the band’s best-known tracks. Even the CD isn’t one most American fans would turn to, although it was a pretty big deal in their native UK. Listening to The Works recently, I was reminded of not only how exceptional Queen was at their best, but also how prescient they could be, and nowhere on the record is that more obvious than in the song “Machines.”
(Now might be a good time to scroll below and click Play on the video link to listen to the song.)
The CD came out in 1984, which for those who recall, corresponds to the early days of personal computing. The term PC was around, if not yet synonymous for personal computer, so it’s pretty interesting that Queen, in “Machines,” used such terminology as disk drive, bytes and megachips, and random access memory—and they made such lingo fit nicely into a rock song. Perhaps more incredible, they used these terms in a way that still sounds appropriate today rather than dated.
As the song begins, the synthesized “machine” voice seems to chant for the machines. In the first verse, Freddy Mercury sings the lyric “When the machines take over / It ain’t no place for rock and roll.” It’s easy here to take the song as a comment on the growing use of technology and synthesizers in music destroying the purity and power of good old-fashioned rock and roll. Although that’s a valid interpretation, it’s also too simple.
The song actually comes with a subtitle or alternate title: “Machines (Or ‘Back to Humans’).” The song presents a picture of a society struggling to find a space for humanity in a world increasingly controlled by computers. As I look around today and see everyone with their faces glued to their smartphone or tablet screens wherever they go, I’m ready to shout “Back to humans!” along with Freddy.
This song was co-written by Brian May and Roger Taylor. Even 10 years ago—let alone the nearly 30 years ago when they wrote “Machines”—I don’t think we could have truly predicted the vast changes in lifestyle that mobile computing would bring. But then, as now, society was on the cusp of change and no one could quite tell where it was leading. Perhaps that’s why the final message of this song still resonates:
Living in a new world
Thinking in the past
Living in a new world
How you gonna last?
If you work with technology, you’re probably one of the ones on the forefront of change—you’re not stuck thinking in the past. But even if you don’t live and breathe in the machine’s world, technology is still changing the way you live and the way you interact with the world. That doesn’t mean you need a smartphone, or an iPad, or even a computer, to live in this “new world” and be successful—but you’d better at least be educated enough to be part of the conversation.
Both musically and lyrically, “Machines” still sounds fresh to my ears almost 30 years after my first listen. I suppose today it might need to talk about virtualization or big data to stay on the cutting edge, but I think the boys knew what they were doing. Oh, and did I mention the song also uses the (invented) word parahumanoidarianised? Check it out!
Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins