Originally published in Spinner, May 12, 2011
by David Chiu
2011 looks to be a very busy year for Queen and there is a special reason behind it: the group is celebrating its 40th anniversary. So far, the festivities began with the reissue of the band’s first five albums — ‘Queen,’ ‘Queen II,’ ‘Sheer Heart Attack,’ ‘A Night At the Opera’ and ‘A Day at the Races’ (they will be rereleased in the US May 17); and a London exhibit, ‘Stormtroopers in Stilettos,’ which spotlighted Queen’s early-to-mid-’70s period.
Another release in the midst of the anniversary is a new unofficial biography on the band, ‘Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Queen,’ by Mark Blake. It covers the group’s entire history from late singer Freddie Mercury’s childhood, which included a boarding school experience in India, to current members Brian May and Roger Taylor reforming Queen with Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers. In between are stories of of the group’s glory years that included the successes of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Another One Bites the Dust,’ their extraordinary appearance at Live Aid and Mercury’s death from AIDS in 1991.
“On paper, Queen probably didn’t make sense,” the London-based Blake tells Spinner. “They were such an odd collection of people, but there was an incredible chemistry there. If you took one of them out of the loop, it probably wouldn’t have worked.”
The book draws from past interviews that Blake conducted with May and Taylor for MOJO and Q magazines, as well as new conversations with acquaintances and former associates. Blake says his motivation for writing the book, which began four years ago, was the group’s fascinating and unique story. “I wanted to explain more about where they came from, especially Freddie Mercury,” he says. “He died young and never discussed his past in interviews. On top of that, nobody had really tackled the Queen story after Mercury’s death.”
One overlooked aspect of Queen’s history was Mercury’s first two years in England that Blake researched by interviewing graphic and commercial artists who knew Mercury in the ’60s. “I discovered through them that Fred Bulsara (as he was known then) tried to put a group together in 1965/6, printing up posters and auditioning musicians at his college,” Blake reveals. “He was very resourceful and ambitious even then, three or four years before supposedly joining his first band in the UK.”
A few things surprised Blake while working on the book, such as how Mercury desperately wanted to be a rock star in the early years. “One of his college friends, Aubrey Malden, had a great little anecdote about Freddie hanging around the band Free (whose lead singer was Paul Rodgers), pestering them backstage,” Blake says. “It was almost like ‘mind over matter.’ He wanted stardom so much it became a reality. For the later years, Peter Hince [Queen’s former road associate] was pretty blunt about what a mess Queen got into in Mexico and South America on their 1981 tour. It was surprising to hear that story in full.”
‘Is This The Real Life?’ also recounts Mercury’s final years, during which he recorded music for the ‘Innuendo’ album as he kept his illness a secret from the public. “Researching the book, it really brought home to me how difficult it must have been for the other three [band members] to keep quiet about what they knew, to have to lie to everyone,” says Blake. “It must have put them under intolerable pressure.”
The book also touches on the band’s recent activities, most notably Queen + Paul Rodgers. “I thought it was very brave,” says Blake of that collaboration. “I interviewed them around that time and Roger Taylor pointed out that ‘We’d be foolish not to use the brand name.’ He was quite right. The gigs were OK, but I think, inevitably, they turned into their own tribute band. It couldn’t be helped.”
As for what the group may do in the future, the author says that May and Taylor could rekindle the Queen spark in one-off situations, such as a TV special and charity gigs with perhaps guest vocalists. “I wouldn’t expect them to retire completely any time soon,” he says.
In the end, Blake says what made Queen so successful was their eclecticism and uniqueness. “It goes back to what I said earlier: I cannot think of another group that explored so many different styles but always sounded like the same band,” he proclaims. “Because of that, I’m afraid I don’t think anyone new can carry the torch. New bands need to make their own mark.”