Added on 30-Mar-2011
Is This The Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen
Aurum Press, $54.95 HB
Queen is now considered to be one of the greatest rock groups in history. But it wasn't always this way.
Before the untimely death of Freddie Mercury, Queen was just as likely to receive critical plaudits as Alvin Stardust, or The Sweet.
Bohemian Rhapsody was seen as a ludicrously annoying overlong novelty single, while Another One Bites The Dust and Crazy Little Thing Called Love were dismissed as prime examples of riff theft.
Springsteen tragic Dave Marsh called them the "first truly fascist rock band".
Then Mercury died of AIDS-related complications at the end of 1991 and suddenly it was okay to say you loved Queen.
This was all very strange. Queen was certainly popular-massive sales attested to that. But when Freddie and the boys sought higher appreciation, their efforts were in vain. They had themselves to blame. Somewhere along the way, Queen decided the grand gesture was more important than subtlety, carefully targeted messages or deeply personal writing.
The mentality seemed to be that if going over the top worked, Queen would reliably fill stadiums. If it DIDN'T pay out, at least they'd have fun doing it.
Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon formed an incredibly adventurous group, even by the superlative standards of the 1970s. Chiefly inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Cream and The Who, Queen broke boundaries. It was a royal duty to do so.
The band was blessed with a flashy frontman, four songwriters, three lead vocalists, a drummer who looked like a woman and a guitarist who made his instrument out of a fireplace.
On Queen albums, you could find heavy metal, power ballads, soft pop, opera, rap, music hall, folk, various genres of jazz, and choruses in Spanish and Japanese.
But Queen still sounded like Queen. The soaring harmonies of Mercury, May and Taylor couldn't be mistaken (or forgotten). And May's Red Special guitar had a totally distinctive sound, often multi-tracked to form an army of lead lines.
There's still debate in some circles as to whether Bohemian Rhapsody or the 10CC art rock classic I'm Not In Love had more overdubs… but there's little argument as to which is more popular.
For all the wild and crazy sounds on A Night At The Opera, A Day At The Races, or News Of The World, Queen refused to use synthesizers and boasted about it on their album covers. Then, around 1980, they started using synthesizers and predictably overdosed on them.
When spiky-haired punk rockers were snarling at Queen in the Seventies, the regal four released a song called Sheer Heart Attack that was faster than the Sex Pistols' entire career.
Freddie soon went off to perform with the Royal Ballet Company.
Of course, when you're surfing on the edge of bad taste, things are bound to go wrong from time to time. The jury's still out on whether Bicycle Race was best promoted by a video of topless women riding around Wimbledon Stadium. Freddie angered a crowd in Brazil when he went on stage dressed in drag to sing I Want To Break Free (hadn't they seen the clip?).
The band was often blind to the outrage they caused when they played in politically suspect territories-touring Argentina in 1981 meant Queen had to dine with General Roberto Viola, whose junta was responsible for the torture and abduction of tens of thousands of people. And in 1984, Queen played in South Africa, contributing to the emergence of United Artists Against Apartheid. Live Aid gave them a chance to give something back to Africa, and prance on the world stage to a world record (and record-buying) audience.
More mega-shows followed but the band was soon restricted to the studio, after Mercury put the kibosh on touring. He'd been diagnosed HIV positive in 1987. Rumours about his health kicked around for some time before the announcement that he was suffering from AIDS. He was dead within hours of the statement, and that was truly the end of the band.
An album of leftovers served as an epilogue. Deacon left altogether before May and Taylor started searching for a new lead singer. Eventually, they toured and recorded with Paul Rodgers, to financial success and muted acclaim. There are suggestions Queen will rise again, but it's really like The Doors without Jim Morrison. They've essentially formed their own cover band.
This book marks the 40th anniversary of the band's creation, and is the perfect companion to the current Queen CD reissue program, which has seen the group's first five classic albums (finally) sonically enhanced to new heights. Mark Blake has completed comprehensive research on the various bands that the principals were in before Queen, and has even tracked down all of the bass players to precede John Deacon. There's an emphasis on Freddie's personal life-we're told about every boyfriend and one-night stand, while we're given relatively little information about what the others were up to. Maybe it's because May, Taylor and Deacon are still alive.
Or maybe it's because their extra-curricular activities were boring, when compared to those of a flamboyant bi-sexual lead singer playing the field. This book is light years ahead of anything else available. A lot of what's in it has appeared before, but it's nice to have all of the bits and pieces pulled together in the type of book Queen have always deserved.
It's not perfect. There are some annoying typos, and rare but tragic errors (Russell Mulcahy's Highlander was not his first feature film, Bali is not in the Pacific etc).
Blake also has the occasional habit of referring to characters who are now deceased as "the late". So when Mercury takes up with "the late Barbara Valentin" in 1984, he makes it sound like she was already dead!
Is This The Real Life is recommended for serious Queen fans, people interested in the machinations of the music industry at the highest level, and anyone discovering the band's music for the first time.If you happen to be one of THOSE daring souls, you're in for an amazing, gripping, rude and sometimes ridiculous journey.
Queen is dead.
Long live Queen.