Writing the biography of a band must be a very difficult assignment. One has to give biographical information about each band member, cover tours and recording sessions, feuds and marriages, chart-topping successes and non-starters, and weed through gossip and scandal in search of the truth. And once the group disbands, the lives of its various members have to be limned as well. It is to say the least a daunting task
British author Mark Blake does as well as he can with the phenomenon known as Queen in his new book Is This the Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen(Da Capo Press). Having done the same for Pink Floyd in his previous book, Comfortably Numb, Blake cuts his way through a thicket of fan magazines and press clippings, and appears to have interviewed practically everyone associated with Queen’s early days that was willing to talk, to deliver the story of the British hard rockers who made spectacularly good. And yet, although all the points are hit, the highs and lows are covered, one comes away from the book perhaps slightly less than satisfied. Although Is This The Real Life? covers a great deal of ground about the band and will be read with interest by fans, more casual readers may not be as willing to follow Blake’s’ detailed account of every tour and recording session. The facts are there, but somehow the soul and energy we associate with Queen and its flamboyant lead singer Freddie Mercury feel absent.
After a prologue involving Queen’s electrifying ‘Don’t call it a comeback’ performance for 1985’s Live Aid,Is This the Real Life? returns to the beginning to provide brief profiles and ‘road to Queen’ histories for each member of the group – guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon – before focusing on the arrival of Farrokh “Fred” Bulsara and his transformation into Freddie Mercury. Blake covers in detail the band’s tours and its increasingly elaborate sets, and their perfectionism and meticulousness in the studio. To say that Queen was an overnight success is an understatement. The band’s career began at small venues, and Queen’s first album was slow to catch on, and it is difficult now to remember that they were never as big in the United States as they were in England and Europe. Queen aggressively promoted their albums through touring, sometime successfully as in their South American tours, and at other times with disastrous results, as in their trips to Mexico and controversial Apartheid-ban defying visit to South Africa’s Sun City.
The real success of Queen was largely due to the talent of Freddie Mercury and his ability to energize crowds with his voice and flamboyant onstage persona. After Mercury contracted HIV, he made his friends and associates deny there was anything wrong with him, even as his illness became increasingly obvious. As the end approached, Freddie and the band recorded as much music he could make. To close the book, Blake details the post-Queen lives of the surviving band members: John Deacon retires, while Brian May and Roger Taylor eventually add Paul Rodgers of Bad Company as front man and continue to tour playing the music of both groups.
Although some of the band’s excesses are legendary, including an infamous 1978 Halloween party in New Orleans featuring 400 invited guests and legions of female and male strippers, the members of Queen often dispersed into four separate individuals, with separate entourages, living in different worlds. Brian May, for example, continued his studies to be an astrophysicist when not on tour in the early years, and Freddie himself, as outrageous as he could be on stage and when in full party mode, never came out as gay, and lived with same woman, Mary Austin, for much of his life. Fiercely loyal to each other, however, the group respected each other’s privacy, which extended even to song lyrics: surviving band members still claim not to know what Mercury meant by some of the phrases in their monster hit “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
This respect for privacy worked well for the enigma that was Freddie Mercury. Born in Zanzibar and raised in India before his family moved to England when he was 17, he seemed obsessed with becoming a star from an early age. His was a life of self-creation and reinvention, and as “Freddie Mercury” he became that star. Blake does excellent work uncovering Mercury’s first years in England, interviewing the graphic and commercial artists who knew him in the 1960s. But Freddie eludes him as his fame grows and Queen becomes more successful, and the question of when the creation eventually overcame the real person is one Blake’s somewhat workmanlike account does not answer. One wonders if the forthcoming bio-pic starring Sasha Baron Cohen as Freddie will come closer to uncovering who he was – perhaps no one can.