When Queen Dabbled in Disco on ‘Another One Bites the Dust’
Queen's music was already impossible to pigeonhole: a bit glam, a bit hard rock, a bit prog, a bit pop. Why not try out disco?
The movement was starting to fizzle by 1979 — probably not the ideal time to join. For most pop historians, the genre's glory days were over by July 12 of that year, when the "Disco Demolition Night" MLB promotion in Chicago saw a bin of disco records blown to bits. But Queen were unconcerned over at Munich's Musicland studio, where they'd already started work on their expansive eighth LP, 1980's The Game.
John Deacon developed the single "Another One Bites the Dust" around his funky bass line — a sort of darker, starker take on Bernard Edwards' groove from Chic's "Good Times," released in June 1979. And he took clear ownership of the song's lean arrangement, which utilized reversed effects, a dense electric guitar rhythm, Roger Taylor's dry-sounding drum loop and one of Freddie Mercury's grittiest vocals.
"I listened to a lot of soul music when I was in school, and I've always been interested in that sort of music," he told Bassist & Bass Techniques in 1996. "I'd been wanting to do a track like 'Another One Bites the Dust' for a while, but originally all I had was the line and the bass riff. Gradually I filled it in and the band added ideas."
The "Good Times" similarity wasn't a coincidence, at least according to two Chic members.
"[Deacon] was sitting right next to me when 'Good Times' was recorded," Rodgers told Vibe in 1997.
"Well, that Queen record came about because that bass player...spent some time hanging out with us at our studio," Edwards told NME (per Fred Bronson's The Billboard Book of Number One Hits). "But that's O.K. What isn't O.K. is that the press…started saying that we had ripped them off! Can you believe that? 'Good Times' came out more than a year before, but it was inconceivable to these people that black musicians could possibly be innovative like that. It was just these dumb disco guys ripping off this rock 'n' roll song."
Queen guitarist Brian May referenced the Chic vibe in a 2019 interview with Guitar World. "It’s very Nile Rodgers," he said of Deacon's guitar playing. "And John absolutely adored him — we all do. John was very influenced by him, without a doubt. What an amazing guy Nile Rodgers is. He’s got his own vocabulary, his own world."
Still, "Another One Bites the Dust" was more than just a groove, no matter how iconic. The violent lyrical imagery — which reference the "plenty of ways that you can hurt a man," including machine guns — gave the song a bleak atmosphere.
“To ‘bite the dust’ is a cowboy phrase, and that’s all I had at first – just the line,” Deacon told Mary Turner of Westwood One in 1981. “When we went in the studio I actually had a set of lyrics that nobody had ever seen. I hadn’t shown them to anybody, I was so embarrassed about them!”
His approach shifted after they got the music on tape, realizing the words no longer fit. “We did the backing track and it was sort of a bit heavier, whereas the cowboy thing was a bit more light-hearted and humorous,” he said. “So I decided to change the lyrics; I had to come up with three different verses for it.”
The song was released as The Game's fourth single, partly due to the encouragement of Michael Jackson. "[He] actually suggested we release it as a single," Deacon told Bassist & Bass Techniques. "He was a fan of ours and used to come to our shows." And the track wound up expanding their commercial appeal: topping the Billboard Hot 100, landing at No. 2 on both the soul and disco charts.
"I could hear it as a song for dancing but had no idea it would become as big as it did," the bassist added. "The song got picked up off our album and some of the black radio stations in the U.S. started playing it, which we've never had before."
"Another One Bites the Dust" was an unlikely crossover hit during disco's dying days. But the song did make one notable enemy in some evangelist Christians: A famous claim circulated that, when reversed, the title phrase transformed into the subliminal message "It's fun to smoke marijuana." (You be the judge.)