[10 April 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Queen is, like author Mark Blake’s previous work, thoroughly researched and meticulously detailed. It’s also like his earlier work, which includes Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, in that there is not a whole lot of new information in it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if you have not read countless other accounts of Queen and Freddie Mercury. It’s just not what you might expect from a biography with the word “untold” in its title.
Is This the Real Life? begins in 1985, at the Live Aid concerts, where Queen is coming off of bad press for playing in apartheid South Africa and suffering the stresses that come from surviving a by then 14-year career. Even though the band was recognized at the time as an unmatched live experience, Live Aid was something of a chance for a comeback. It was as if, according to Blake, the band members had something to prove. If you are old enough to have seen their set, you’ll know that they did more than prove their worth: they blew all the other performers away, and in less than 25-minutes, to boot!
After relating this triumph, Blake backtracks to before the band’s beginnings. Using many of his own interviews, in addition to other existing informational sources, he presents an in-depth look at the key people and events that led to the formation of and rise of Queen. Of course, most of the focus falls on Freddie Mercury, with a good deal of time spent on Brian May, as well. This is to be expected, one assumes there just isn’t as much information available on Roger Taylor and John Deacon. However, concentrating the bulk of the background on Freddie is part of what makes the book feel a bit repetitive—because much of it is already so well-documented—despite the inclusion of lesser-known facts and anecdotal input from several of his school mates, childhood friends and contemporaries.
That said, there is also previously unpublished content. Blake covers early incarnations of the band, including all three bass players who preceded Deacon. He speaks to John Anthony, the first producer to work with Queen, who has never spoken publicly about the band before now. He also interviews studio engineers, college friends and others who help give a more complete picture of the band’a early days. There are unique sources and original documents quoted for the first time in Is This the Real Life, such as a personal letter of Mercury’s. A number of photos are also published for the first time, here.
Besides his unique sources, Blake brings another asset to this publication, and that is his rather objective viewpoint. Where many other biographies tend toward sycophantic slavering, this is a much more neutral, almost documentarian, approach. Even as he gets to the band’s peak and the oft-repeated tales, Blake assesses all he has collected with a rather impartial eye, which allows the details and descriptions to speak for themselves. Although there is a lot, throughout, with which people are already quite familiar, fans will be pleased to find painstakingly detailed descriptions of Queen in the studio, and newcomers will be impressed with the comprehensive overview.
There are far too many grammatical and typographical errors in Is This the Real Life? to avoid commenting on them. They’re unfortunately not restricted to the review copy. This is likely more of a copyediting issue than any fault of the writing, but it’s nevertheless annoyingly distracting, and it’s especially disheartening given the amount of research that went into creating this book, not to mention Blake’s own journalistic background. One hopes that future pressings correct these mistakes.
Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Queen closes not with Freddie Mercury’s death, but with future projects: the Queen/Paul Rodgers collaboration, a new record company, films and a documentary. One supposes that’s as it should be, after all, the show must go on.