Think of a Queen album sleeve. Chances are that, if you’re not picturing Mick Rock’s shadowy floating heads on Queen II, then you’ve chosen the giant, impassive steel robot murdering the line-up on 1977’s News Of The World. Aesthetically – not to mention musically – Queen’s sixth album was quite a departure.
Their previous two album sleeves – 1975’s A Night At The Opera and 1976’s A Day At The Races – had been exercises in classic minimalism, little more than the Mercury-designed crest and a monochrome background. For NOTW the jump-off came when Roger Taylor dug out an old issue of the American comic Astounding Science Fiction from 1953. On its cover was the now-familiar robot, but here, in its original form, it proffered a dead man in its palm, its eyes cold and blank, seemingly unable to process the crime it has just committed).
Ever ambitious, the band didn’t want to simply reproduce the image, so they tracked down its creator, US fantasy artist Frank Kelly Freas, to discuss an adaptation. In the niche world of science-fiction artwork, Freas was something of a superstar too. As the first artist to win 10 Hugo Awards (dubbed the ‘Oscars of sci-fi art’), he had illustrated for genre heavyweights including Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, while his most famous work was perhaps MAD magazine’s mischievous cover star Alfred E Neuman.
Freas agreed to customise his work for News Of The World: the robot would now clutch the bloodied Mercury and May, while Taylor and Deacon tumble to the ground like rag dolls. Open the sleeve and you found the steel monster reaching down into a dome to pluck out members of the terrified audience. It remains a ruthless, strangely troubling image, famously terrifying Family Guy’s Stewie in the 2012 episode Killer Queen (based on creator Seth MacFarlane’s own fear of the album sleeve as a child).
Queen never had a mascot in the mould of Eddie, Rosie or Snaggletooth, but affection for News Of The World’s metallic colossus – now referred to by Brian May simply as ‘Frank’ – is palpable as it made a string of cameos on the band’s 2017 world tour.
On June 23, at Arizona’s Gila River Arena, first-night punters watched as it battered through a wall of screens before We Will Rock You, appeared on Taylor’s drum skin, cupped May during a solo spot and threatened to upstage Adam Lambert as he sang Killer Queen from atop its silver cranium.
“Still plenty of work to do to explore this new production,” May tweeted, “but don’t tell me we’re not theatrical!”
‘Frank’ and the entire stage design was brought to life by Stufish, who also based the stage shape on May’s custom guitar.
And the closest you’ll get to owning the NOTW robot for yourself? Either investigate the Queen Monopoly game (where it’s one of the counters) or track down one of the ultra-rare 54-inch plastic models that were created to promote the album back in 1977, and still occasionally surface on eBay.