Queen released Flash Gordon on December 8, 1980, their ninth studio album and first soundtrack album by EMI Records in the UK.
Italian director Dino de Laurentiis was slated to direct a film adaptation of the 1930s comic hero, Flash Gordon. The De Laurentiis’ people made initial contact in the summer of 1979 (during preliminary sessions for “The Game”) to ask whether Queen would score the film. Although, the great Italian producer wasn’t actually aware of the band since he never listened to rock music. His first question on learning of the liaison was “Who are the Queens?”
Brian May recalled, “We wanted to do something that was a real soundtrack. It’s a first in many ways because a rock group has not done this type of thing before, or else it’s been toned down and they’ve been asked to write mushy background music. Whereas we were given the license to do what we liked, as long as it complimented the picture.”
Queen’s assignment for Flash Gordon was to supply original songs as well as the score — and that, coupled with the film’s sci-fi story, proved too intriguing to resist.
“We would be writing a film score in the way anyone else writes a film score, which is basically background music, but can obviously help the film if it’s strong enough,” he added. “That was the attraction, because we thought that a rock group hadn’t done that kind of thing before, and it was an opportunity to write real film music. So we were writing to a discipline for the first time ever, and the only criterion for success was whether or not it worked with and helped the film, and we weren’t our own bosses for a change. “
With de Laurentiis safely assuaged by director Mike Hodges, the group set about songwriting for Flash Gordon, but given that they were already getting down to work on their eighth studio LP, The Game — and setting out on a U.S. tour — time for the soundtrack was at a premium. In order to make the most of their brief window of availability, May and the rest of the band (bassist John Deacon, singer Freddie Mercury and drummer Roger Taylor) worked on their songs separately after viewing a short chunk of the film in progress.
Queen just finished a lengthy European tour and a three week stint in Japan – from January to May. They spent the summer of 1979 working on ‘The Game’ album mostly at Musicland studios in Munich, Germany. It was during these sessions that they also started working on the score for ‘Flash Gordon.’ Producing two albums simultaneously wasn’t easy, but both progressed well. After touring, holidays and other ventures, more work followed on ‘The Game’ and ‘Flash Gordon’ into the early part of 1980, in Munich. A US tour began in June and ran through October. After the band had a well-earned holiday for most of October, Queen recommenced work on the ‘Flash’ soundtrack in London and had completed the album in November. One track, “The Hero,” was recorded at Utopia studios in London, just days before the tapes were sent for mastering.
The music was composed, performed, arranged and produced by Queen with the overall album credited as a Brian and Mack production. John Deacon pointed out in an interview in 1981, as being a “very unusual thing for us, and we got [in] some trouble with it. Brian wanted to have a German producer, with whom he worked very closely in Munich, while we would have preferred an album from Queen. We did agree then, but were not very happy about it.”
Brian and Mack embraced the fusion of trademark Queen rock guitars and lavish synth accompaniment, and also had no problem integrating additional orchestral arrangements by Howard Blake (The Duellists, S.O.S. Titanic, and The Snowman, to name but a few of his original scores), a London-born composer who was also given a tight schedule. Both Blake and Queen were nominated for a BAFTA Award for their endeavors, though much of Howard’s work never made it to the movie.
For the Flash Gordon album, Queen maintained a hands-on approach. It was the band’s idea to use snippets of dialogue to give a sense of narrative and structure to the disc. Brian May said, “We wanted a soundtrack album that made you feel like you’d watched the film so we shipped in all the dialogue and effects and wove it together like tapestry.” It was Freddie Mercury who used his graphic design skills to provide the distinctive ‘Flash Gordon’ logo. The inner sleeve shows the four members of Queen taken on their U.S. tour, with Freddie sporting a Flash t-shirt.
Brian’s epic opening, “Flash’s Theme,” was released as a single and is one of only two tracks on the album to feature formal vocals, with the guitarist and Mercury working in duet form, while Roger Taylor adds a terrific high harmony. May plays a Bösendorfer Model 290 Imperial, the concert grand piano that has 97 keys and is described as “the Rolls-Royce of pianos”.
All tracks were titled after the appropriate part of the film that each part was specifically written for, and when hearing the album in its own right, the listener gets a vivid idea of what’s happening in the story. The drama of the action, the dialogue and over the top special effects, Queen’s distinctive sound threading through it all, makes it very compelling and an unusual blend.
The day that Flash Gordon was released (December 8, 1980) coincided with the awful news of John Lennon’s assassination outside his apartment in New York City. The following day during Queen’s concert at London’s Wembley Arena, they paid tribute by playing a version of “Imagine.”
Queen fans lapped it up just in time for Christmas and there was BAFTA recognition and an Ivor Novello nomination to add extra kudos to an LP that hit the U.K. Top 10 and went Gold, No. 23 in the US, No.1 in Austria and No.2 in Germany. As Queen toured North America and Europe to support The Game that summer and autumn, excerpts from the soundtrack – “Battle Theme,” “Flash” and “The Hero” – were incorporated into their set.
Brian May later suggested that the constraints that Queen’s schedule placed on their Flash Gordon efforts may have kept them from rushing back to film work. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time,” he told Guitar Player. “We were doing The Game and an American tour at the same time Flash was going on, so it was ridiculous. We put as much time as we could in. We would do a week here and a week there. I spent some time with the arranger and orchestra to try and get some coherence to it all.”