Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Is this the Real Life? Mark Blake on his new book

Does your biography attempt to cover the lives of all four members of Queen right up to present day or does it focus on a particular phase in their careers?

It focuses on all four, from their earliest days up until the present day. But the emphasis is on their time in Queen – the glory years, if you like – and in the years immediately preceding Queen, when they were all playing in school and college groups. Understanding what all four were like as individuals early on helps make sense of what they later became in Queen.




Is it an authorised biography or not? What are the differences between authorised and unauthorised biographies and are there issues here that are unique to Queen?

It is unauthorised, but several interviewees told me that they contacted Brian May and Roger Taylor before agreeing to speak to me. So they were made aware of the book quite early on. I doubt that they took much notice, though. The difference between an ‘unauthorised’ and ‘authorised’ biography is that the band are not involved in the former, but would be in the latter.

Many official music biographies are heavily edited and rather bland, because the band have an image to maintain.

Is it true that Queen have always had a difficult relationship with the music press? Can you try and describe this relationship and also explain it, given that you have a good knowledge of both?

Yes, I think they had a very difficult relationship, especially early on. Researching the book, it was easy to see why both parties took against each other. Queen were very much a creature of the 1970s, not the 1960s. They were openly ambitious, in an era when many of their contemporaries pretended not to be; they were smart, well-educated and didn’t try and hide it, and they admitted early on that they wanted to be rich and successful. You can see why this rankled with critics, when there was still a hangover – of ideas and values - from the late 60s.

There’s a telling quote from Brian May, in which he talks about going to see the film of the Woodstock festival, and realising that, The Who and Hendrix aside, he can’t relate to a lot of the bands – “the stoned shuffling” and so on. I think that some of the criticism Queen received from the music press was valid. Unfortunately, it seems to have done some irreversible damage. I enjoyed interviewing Brian May and Roger Taylor, but it’s hard, if not impossible, to convince them of your good intentions.

I’m part of a generation of – not very young – music critics, who grew up on Queen’s music, and don’t share the same hang-ups as some of our predecessors. Then again, those men have had 20 years now of being asked the same questions over and over again about the death of Freddie Mercury and how many “Galileos” there are in Bohemian Rhapsody. I imagine they must be sick to death of it by now.



The fact that Roger Taylor grew up in Cornwall is quite well known: but the extent that he played here as a teenager and later as a member of both Smile and Queen is not really appreciated...

Cornwall figures hugely in Roger Taylor’s story, but also in the story of Queen and the pre-Queen band Smile. From the interviews I conducted, it seems that it was a home from home for both groups, and a place for the bands to practice their act, away from prying eyes in London.

There was also a big social aspect to Smile and Queen’s mini-tours of Cornwall. Smile used to bring an entourage of friends, roadies and general hangers-on with them from Imperial College (where Brian May was studying) and Ealing Art School, which is where Smile’s bassist Tim Staffell was a student. Among those friends was Fred Bulsara (later Freddie Mercury). One of my interviewees, Richard Thompson (who played drums in bands with both May and Mercury) remembers being with Smile in Cornwall, on the night of the first moon landings, in 1969. He watched it on Roger Taylor’s mother’s TV in Truro…

Queen also played their first concert in the City Hall in Truro on June 27th, 1970. Though the gig was advertised as a Smile gig, it was the first time that Freddie sang with them, which is why the band have always said it was their first concert as Queen (see advert in West Briton below).



I understand you were able to speak to John Anthony who engineered Queen's first album. He hasn't contributed to biographies before. Were there other people who were able to bring something new?

John Anthony agreed to an interview after several months of gentle persuasion (ie: nagging). John is a great raconteur and full of insights. He produced some tracks for Smile (in fact he got into a fight during a Smile gig in Cornwall, and claimed to have fought off angry locals with the clawfoot base of a microphone stand), before co-producing Queen’s first album. John was excellent on that transitional period where Smile gradually turned into Queen, and he has some great anecdotes from those early Queen tours that illuminate just how unusual they were as a band, and how unique Freddie Mercury was as a frontman.

I managed to track down other people who haven’t given interviews before. These include Freddie Mercury’s first friends in England (who took him to Eel Pie Island to see Rod Stewart, and who helped design posters when he tried to put a band together); Doug Bogie (aka Doug X) the teenage bass guitarist who was fired by Queen after just two gigs; Chris Smith, who briefly played keyboards in Smile and was one of Freddie Mercury’s first songwriting partners, and a former tea-boy/assistant tape op at Wessex Studios (now a big name in radio) who witnessed a bizarre altercation between Freddie Mercury and Brian May over a tray of almond slices.


Queen were supposedly recording 'We are the Champions' in that same studio in Highbury at the same time as the Sex Pistols recorded 'Never mind the Bollocks'. Is this right?

Both bands were using Wessex Studios in North London at the same time. Brian May and Roger Taylor discussed the meeting in an interview for Mojo magazine in 2008. They couldn’t remember the exact details. But the most popular story is that Sid Vicious is supposed to have asked Freddie Mercury if he was still “bringing ballet to the masses” (in reference to a quote Mercury had given to an NME interviewer), to which Mercury replied, “We’re trying our best, Mr Ferocious, dear.”

I’d like to think it happened. Queen’s roadie Peter Hince, who later became the head of their road crew, also recalls the meeting, and says that the Pistols and Queen had been in the same studio a year before that, when Queen were making the A Day At The Races album.


At around the same time Queen gained a reputation for holding the most extravagant parties. Was this just hype or did they really happen? I say this because people like Brian and John particularly seem reserved and intellectual and not the sort to really enjoy that kind of thing...

Those extravagant parties really did happen, but a little mythology has crept in over the years. The most notorious Queen party was in New Orleans in 1978. This is the party in which there were supposedly dwarves carrying trays of cocaine on their heads. Unfortunately, I’ve been told by several reliable sources that there were no dwarves with cocaine… The former head of EMI Records Bob Mercer (who is sadly no longer with us) shared some wonderful anecdotes about that night. I’m sure Brian May and John Deacon thoroughly enjoyed themselves, as well. It’s just that Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor were the more visible party animals. I was told about lesbian sex shows in Paris and a party in a brothel in Germany in which all the working girls were pre-paid. I have no idea who did what and with whom, but I was assured “that only the single members of the touring party attended”.


Overall how do you explain the band's success?

I think it’s simply down to the music, and the fact that they had a fantastic frontman who was great at selling that music.







Is this the Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen is available from October 2010.  This interview was originally published on http://www.artcornwall.org/

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