Queen, the overblown British rock band that felt home in the ’80s but surfaced in 1971, used to mark album launches with obese strippers, snake charmers and midgets parading streaks of cocaine on silver trays strapped to their heads. Onstage, wonderfully camp frontman Freddie Mercury—born Farrokh Bulsara on the East African island of Zanzibar—would gyrate in spandex bodysuits, zippered down to his hairy navel and stretched to near-snapping point at his crotch. The music dreamed up by the group’s four male members is most easily recognized by their inflated falsetto harmonies. Queen has never been subtle. What they have been is sensationally, unapologetically glam.
The band’s excess is perhaps what the people behind Queen: The Ultimate Illustrated History of the Crown Kings of Rock had in mind when they covered its pages in multicolored clip art—paisley borders, floating polka dots, bloated flowers. But Queen had expensive taste, a penchant for luxury; Voyageur Press’ coffee-table book is as cheap-looking as an amateur fan site. Its shoddier sections appear not unlike slides in a PowerPoint presentation, with strangely textured backgrounds and eclectic fonts.
This illustrated history’s claim to distinction is 500-plus photographs of the band and related artefacts—handbills, posters, backstage passes, records, concert tickets, T-shirts—many of them previously unpublished. But while the breadth of visual material here is impressive, too many of the pictures are spoiled by a mediocre printing job and distracting ornamentation. Queen does not need to be jazzed up. A two-page spread of Freddie Mercury in an elastic, diamond-patterned onesie is flamboyant enough without being framed by pink and yellow argyle cut-outs.
If the art is cluttered and confused, the text is not much better. The primary historical narrative, by freelance rock journalist Phil Sutcliffe, traces the band from the boys’ pre-Queen activities to the remaining members’ current projects. (Diehards will be horrified that the book concludes with the recent collaboration between Paul Rodgers and what is left of Queen.) This is interspersed with considerations—from music writers like Jon Bream, Jim DeRogatis, Gary Graff and Greg Kot—of all the albums in the Queen canon. As if Queen: The Ultimate Illustrated History needed more contributors, every performer from Lance Bass of ’N Sync to Tommy Lee has been given the opportunity to weigh in, some in short essays, others in floating quotations.
The resultant collage is dizzying. Often, a full-page album review will crop up before Sutcliffe has even reached the record in his chronology, leaving the reader to flip back and forth between the different segments of the book in an effort to piece a cohesive storyline together.
Words and images are entirely out of tune with each other. Pictures of ticket stubs and concert bills featuring Queen with Mott the Hoople, another big Brit rock band, long precede any mention of the fact that the former supported the latter on tour in the ’70s. In his discussion of Queen II (1974), the group’s second studio album, Sutcliffe refers to “Mick Rock’s iconic cover shot based on an old portrait of Marlene Dietrich.” The actual image—of Mercury, guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon, their shaded, funereal faces illumined against blackness—appears nine pages later.
There is no apparent logic to the book’s organization. It begins, sans introduction, with a hyperbolic tribute to the group’s lead vocalist—“[Queen] would never have established a place in the cultural memory without the catalyst, the firestarter, the stadium bestrider that was Freddie Mercury”—and then, mid-thought, skips directly to a new chapter entitled “The Guitarist”. Any newcomer to Queen is likely to want for a preface that locates the band in cultural context.
Phil Sutcliffe has an undeniable talent for interlacing extracts from already published band interviews and biographies—some of them even from his own magazine work. He has been fastidious in his selections, lifting citations that are evocative enough to shape and sustain his extended chronology. (A fan favorite from Mercury in his mid-30s: “I’m just an old sag who gets up every morning, scratches his head and wonders what he wants to fuck.”) Unfortunately, there is virtually no new material on offer here and, worse, scant original writing. Paragraph after paragraph adheres to the same sterile format (“Mercury told Melody Maker’s Chris Welch in 1974…”).
The author makes very few attempts to actually recreate scenes from Queen’s past. He is less likely to describe a squabble between band members than he is to echo a statement one of the musicians gave to a journalist about the row 20 years ago. The better bits of his history will not impel you to read on, but to set the book aside and pick up the Rolling Stone or L.A. Times or Q Magazine piece from which Sutcliffe happens to be quoting.
“The classic lineup,” Sutcliffe writes, referring to the four ultimate members of Queen, “probably debuted on July 2, 1971, at Surrey College, outside London, although some accounts go straight to their summer tour of Cornwall.” The word “probably” crops up often in Queen: The Ultimate Illustrated History. In an effort to be diplomatic, perhaps, Sutcliffe considers events from varying points of view. The problem is that none of them are his own.
There is an expectation for an “ultimate history” that the historian has done a fair share of digging with the aim of establishing an authoritative account. Sutcliffe has been thorough in his research, but never comes to any real conclusions. Readers might like to know when and where the classic Queen lineup did debut. But here is a compendium of competing histories. It is hardly the place to come to for answers.
For “Bohemian Rhapsody”, whose operatic brilliance was advertised by a lengthy Wayne’s World car scene, this book sacrifices a mere half-page. The six-minute tune’s descent from the pained piano of Mercury’s repentant lullaby into an inferno of warring choirboys and electric sound is a byword for the band’s appeal. Mostly, though, Sutcliffe does not concern himself with the fine points of their compositions. The in-depth album reviews do not help much. They are overly stylized—journalist John Buccigross writes of Mercury, “Dude had game from the get-go, born with wings that soared through Brian May’s atmosphere of guitar strings”—and generally substitute criticism with a perfunctory two sentences on every song. Notable exceptions include Greg Kot, whose treatment of “Killer Queen”, the group’s breakthrough hit, attempts analysis:
To call [Brian May’s] mid-song excursion a ‘solo’ really doesn’t do it justice. Layering parts in echo-laden splendour, he piles on harmonics and contrapuntal melodies with the glee of someone who has little use for the amped-up blues tropes that were all the rage among U.K. guitarists.
For all its shortcomings, this elaborate hardcover ultimately communicates a human portrait of its subjects that is sufficiently complex. The intricacies of their relationships—with each other, with disgruntled partners—surface naturally. And so do their respective neuroses. Brian May, the book’s surprising focal point, emerges a self-doubting depressive so possessed with perfecting solos in studio that he often alienated his band mates. Freddy Mercury, Sutcliffe reveals, viciously reproached admirers who lauded Queen performances he found less than outstanding. The singer was uncompromising even unto his premature death from AIDS in 1991, insistent on recording from bed while he could still hold a note.
There is a reason why Queen’s oeuvre is celebrated for its technical diligence. If Queen: The Ultimate Illustrated History does not have exacting standards, it successfully exposes the fussiest men in rock.