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Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Queen Paperback – 1 Sep 2011
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'Richly detailed biography...draws on extensive interviews' ('Pick of the Paperbacks)(Daily Telegraph)
‘Mark Blake matches the detail of his Pink Floyd book with a fluid, muscular narration of the band’s rise. Crucially, he interviews the key players (which the other biographies don’t.)’ 8/10(Classic Rock magazine)
‘Presents the whole, splendid saga…sparkling anecdotes throughout.’(Mojo)
‘Genuinely adds to the fund of knowledge about this truly unique band.’(Record Collector)
‘Includes a highly interesting section on their origins…a well-researched account…A good choice for both Queen experts and more lightweight fans.’(Sunday Business Post)
About the Author
Mark Blake is a former Assistant Editor of Q and long-time contributor to Mojo magazine. He is the author of the definitive Pink Floyd biography, Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Queen, and editor of Stone Me: the Wit & Wisdom of Keith Richards (all published by Aurum) and also the editor of Dylan: Visions, Portraits and Back Pages and Punk: The Whole Story. He lives in London with his wife and son.
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That telling quote from Queen’s first publicist speaks volumes about the late, great Mr Mercury. He is one of the most famous performers that ever lived but we still know very little about him. That’s the challenge that faced Mark Blake or any author trying to get to the root of this enigmatic diva and he gets as close to the man as is humanly possibly now he’s gone. It’s the Queen equivalent of the book Last Train To Memphis about Elvis Presley (a similar hugely influential and enigmatic presence in music history like Mercury) by Peter Guralnick. Bob Dylan said you could feel Elvis breathe on the page in that book and you get that same feeling with Freddie Mercury here.
It does a superb job of reconstructing Freddie’s student days when he was trying to find himself both as a performer and and as a man. He cross-references recollections from people who knew him then to corroborate or, in some cases, contradict each other and it’s fascinating to see how many variations there are as people’s memories fade. Just take Freddie’s acceptance as the new singer of Ibex, one remembers him joining in a meeting in the Kensington Tavern pub while the other two can’t decide if it was at an audition in someone’s basement flat or at Imperial College. Unable to get to the truth, Mark Blake just presents the conflicting stories and lets us make up our own minds about what is true. In the student squat where Freddie was staying, his hippie housemates used to hide their drug stash in with the tea leaves but nobody told Freddie. He makes a cup of tea and they find him half an hour later tripping out as he listens to music.
There are also several tales of Freddie spotting his college friends in the street and shouting their names as he runs after them. We don’t think of Freddie Mercury ever walking in the street like a normal person (Mercury, in mythology, was the messenger of the Gods, after all), we think of him as living a rock star’s life in mansions, limousines, private jets and five-star hotels (it really is unbelievable to see how poor Freddie and the others were before and, due to a bad first record deal, after Queen started having hits. Not only that, there’s a great story of Freddie Mercury giving a broke David Bowie a free pair of boots from the market stall he was working at). It humanises Freddie and is also sad to think that that moment in time is gone forever and so is he.
It is also incredible to read about Freddie being unable to write songs at first and slamming his piano in frustration. This is the man who in just a few short years would be responsible for Bohemian Rhapsody, a regular winner of The Best Song of All-Time polls. We all have to start somewhere. Through sheer force of will, Freddie forces himself to become a great songwriter, a great singer with stage presence and forces his way into the vacant spot in Brian May and Roger Taylor’s group Smile. There is no doubt that when Freddie heard Brian and Roger play in Smile, he could hear the engine of the group that would take him to success.
Freddie’s influence on Queen cannot be underestimated. He named the group, he designed their logo, he made the breakthrough by writing their first Top 10 hit (Seven Seas of Rhye, Brian May wrote Queen’s first ever single Keep Yourself Alive and it flopped badly), he wrote their first number one single (Bohemian Rhapsody) and he even was responsible for the costumes they wore on stage and the lighting that would make them look dynamic. This was in addition to playing piano, doing backing vocals (with their huge stacked harmonies) and co-producing all their records with the rest of the band. That is not to underestimate the other members of Queen who were all highly-intelligent guys, virtuoso musicians and innovative songwriters who could follow the lead of Mercury and write in the style he had established. When Freddie’s songwriting output dwindled in the 80s (and all the tales of cocaine-fuelled lascivious excess are here), it was the others in the band especially Roger Taylor (Radio Ga Ga, A Kind of Magic) and John Deacon (Another One Bites The Dust, I Want To Break Free) that saved Queen from fading away. “I’m nothing without the others,” Freddie said in the 80s when his solo album came out.
In tandem with Freddie’s rise to stardom, his struggle with his sexuality is sensitively handled. You can see Freddie slowly beginning to drift away from heterosexuality, spurning female Queen groupies that break into his room and asking his assistant to tell girlfriend Mary Austin that he might be gay and being rebuffed. When Freddie eventually does tell her the truth himself, it is very moving how they react to one another. It gives the whole book a tragic dimension; Freddie had just become the confident, successful and famous star of his dreams and yet, at the same time, he was unwittingly sowing the seeds of his own destruction by rejecting Mary and setting himself on the path to catching the dreaded AIDS virus that killed him. That scene alone shows a writer in total control of his subject that he can put you right at the heart of a crucial, intimate moment in the life of a man who was ferociously private about everything. Blake has clearly done painstaking research over many years to piece all this together and it is a triumph of investigative reporting. Even though the information to go on is thin, the prose is sparse and only a few lines are given to it, it does the trick of filling in the many blanks in the story.
On the downside, there are dozens of typos in the book and some phrases repeated twice in the same sentence. Proofreading? There are also some minor but niggling factual errors; Queen played Slane Castle in County Meath not Dublin (Brian May made the same mistake at the Slane gig: “It’s good to be back in Dublin!” to which the crowd shouted back “We’re in Meath!”), Rock Hudson died on October 2nd 1985, not October 3rd. It doesn’t stop your enjoyment of the book but it is careless and takes you out of the story occasionally. Perhaps these errors could be corrected in future versions.
The book is good on Queen’s “night of Halloween madness in 1978” in New Orleans, excellent on Queen’s Munich recording sessions for The Game album detailing their working methods, fights and extra-curricular activities. It’s also excellent on the impromptu recording session and massive subsequent power struggle between David Bowie and the Queen camp that resulted in another classic single “Under Pressure.”
After Freddie’s death in the book, you really do miss his humour and big personality in it in the way the remaining members of Queen and his fans around the world did and still do. The book ends with “speculation” that Adam Lambert would take over as Queen’s lead singer, “though nothing has come of it.” And Sacha Baron Cohen being set to play Freddie in a “forthcoming” film. We both know that the opposite has now happened to both those bits of gossip with Lambert fronting Queen on their American tour this summer and Baron Cohen dropping out of the film over creative differences.
With each passing year, the loss of Freddie Mercury seems greater and greater. Here, for the first time, we have the definitive account of his life, extraordinary career and tragic death plus you get the stories of all the other members of Queen too. There really can be only one and it is Freddie Mercury, we were lucky to have had him as long as we did. May he rest in peace.
As a fan of Freddie and Queen I've found the book an excellent read and difficult to put down.
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